Midwest scrambles to avert flooding

BY SUSAN KIM | Wahpeton, ND | April 9, 2001

With floodwaters already spilling into roadways, residents in the Midwest are scrambling to prevent severe damage.

Residents in the Dakotas and Minnesota faced precarious flood situations Monday after heavy weekend rain fell on top of rapidly melting snow. More rain is forecast this week.

In the most danger are the communities of Wahpeton, ND and Breckenridge, MN, on the edge of the swelling Red River. The river is expected to crest at 19.5 feet Wednesday or Thursday.

After floods in 1997 devastated communities along the Red River, new dikes and levees were built, and many residents tried to flood-proof their homes. This week will be the biggest test to date of these flood protection measures.

Residents of Crookston, MN were evacuated Monday as a precaution.

The James and Big Sioux rivers in eastern South Dakota were also rising.

Throughout the affected states, emergency crews were shoring up levees, warning residents to be prepared, and simply praying.

Though the river heights will rival those of 1997, flood potential depends on how well new levee systems work, said Pat Slattery, spokesperson for the central regional office of the National Weather Service. "Flooding will vary from place to place," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has just completed a new levee system designed to better protect communities like Wahpeton, ND.

Adding to the unpredictable nature of floods in the state is the fact that several agricultural levees have been removed over the past few years. "There is no telling what impact that's going to have," said Slattery.

Staff from the City of Grand Forks Engineering Department completed an inspection of the city's levee system, and also held pre-flood meetings to gauge readiness.

Faith-based groups such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief have alerted their local representatives who will respond to flood-related needs as they arise.

The Red River flows from south to north and, in the spring, tends to spill over its banks when water flow hits sections of the river that are still frozen. This year, though, there is some good news regarding the potential for such ice jams. "Major portions of the river are already ice-free," said Rob Keller, public affairs officer for North Dakota Emergency Management.

North Dakota has seen flooding during the last eight years, particularly during 1997 when devastating floods followed by fire leveled Grand Forks. Devils Lake, which has been continually rising for several years and submerging homes and farmland, is predicted to increase its volume more than usual this year.

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