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Fargo Residents Cope With Continued Flood Fears

March 30, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Residents of Fargo, N.D., are coping with ongoing fears of heavy flooding from the swollen Red River and warnings about inclement weather in the days ahead. Tom Bearden reports from the scene.

GWEN IFILL: Next, how residents in North Dakota are coping with flooding amid nasty weather and the potential for danger in the days ahead. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Fargo.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: On Sunday, exhausted Fargo residents gathered to give thanks that they have so far escaped major flooding…

PREACHER: Give us strength, Jesus, to do what we can and what we must to fight back the water.

TOM BEARDEN: … and to thank the national guardsmen who came to help.

But even as church services were ending, volunteers were called back to the Fargodome to fill still more sandbags, adding to the total of some 3 million filled in the last 10 days.

It’s been bitterly cold, so cold that sandbags have to be bashed around to break up the frozen dirt inside before they can be laid on the wall. Even though the dikes have kept most of the city relatively dry, the swollen Red River still managed to cause damage.

A permanent floodwall at the Oak Grove Lutheran School was undercut, and several campus buildings were inundated. The river, which divides the towns of Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota, easily broke a 112-year-old record-high level before it began to subside on Saturday.

The river never did reach the 43-foot level that many feared would lead to a catastrophe. It’s down about a foot-and-a-half since the crest. Even so, it’s still three feet above flood stage.

Governor John Hoeven told us the river will likely stay well above flood stage for perhaps a week, putting enormous stress on the sandbag dikes.

GOV. JOHN HOEVEN (R), North Dakota: This could be five, six days at these very high levels and then slowly go down. So it’s about monitoring, maintaining that dike and the protection, but also supporting our people. You know, if we have an area where we get water, moving people out, making sure we’re prepared for all those kinds of contingencies, as well.

Decade of high flood crests

TOM BEARDEN: Hoeven had just returned from an aerial survey of the flooded valley on Saturday afternoon. Even though North Dakota's largest city has gotten most of the media attention, every town up and down the river has been affected, as well as thousands of acres of farmland.

The Red River floods every spring when the snow in the broad, flat valley begins to melt, but Fargo has seen unusually high flood crests over the last decade. Many are now calling for permanent flood protection measures. The governor agrees and says some have already been approved and funding is being arranged.

But some estimates are it would take up to $800 million to fully protect Fargo and Moorhead. It cost nearly $500 million to build flood walls in the city of Grand Forks, North Dakota, about 70 miles downstream from Fargo after a disastrous 1997 flood.

NATIONAL GUARDSMAN: If you look here on this street, you can see what I was talking about, with the water going down this morning, with it being so cold out.

Many residents displaced

TOM BEARDEN: The National Guard has been patrolling low-lying neighborhoods in Moorhead that were evacuated last week, as water slowly seeped around and through the dikes there. About 12,000 people -- about a third of the population -- were advised to leave.

Jeffrey Pulford watched some of them go.

JEFFREY PULFORD, Minnesota National Guard: This guy, he turned around -- and probably a gentlemen 55 or 60 years old -- turned around, looked at his house, and, you know, I've seen a grown man cry.

TOM BEARDEN: Jackie Ogunegi and her service dog, Misha, were ordered out on Thursday. She's now living in a Red Cross shelter at a nearby high school gymnasium. She suffers from epilepsy, but had helped put a small secondary dike around the building, only to see the water rise over it.

JACKIE OGUNEGI: To look back now and see that it's over what we did, it's just very hurtful, very, very hurtful.

RANDI BERNARD: I never thought I'd ever have to be here, in the 49 years I've lived here, I never thought I'd ever be here, but it's home.

TOM BEARDEN: Randi Bernard and her daughter occupy cots just across the gym.

RANDI BERNARD: If it breaks, if it floods, that's part of nature.

TOM BEARDEN: I understand your husband works here at the school?

RANDI BERNARD: Yes, he works -- he's a custodian. He actually cleans this area that we're camping out in.

TOM BEARDEN: So he's living here now as well as working?

RANDI BERNARD: Yep. Yep. Yep. He's out right now doing the -- checking on the school.

More snow expected

TOM BEARDEN: Richard Toczek never left his home, despite the fact it was almost surrounded by water. He and relatives built the dike around his house, and he was frustrated by the often changing forecasts for the river's eventual crest.

RICHARD TOCZEK: They come around, they tell you what you have to build to, and then pretty soon they come back, you raise it, and then they come back, and tell you to raise it again. It gets to where it's hard to -- once you had your dike built, it's hard to, you know, go up some more unless you give yourself a lot of extra room.

TOM BEARDEN: But the neighborhoods that flooded were relatively isolated cases. And on Saturday, Fargo residents gathered on the Veterans Memorial Bridge to survey the fruits of their labor.

JIM POSTEMA: We had to get out of the house. And there's also some celebration, because we helped sandbag, and so the river is the shape it is partly because we helped keep it where it is.

TOM BEARDEN: Jim Postema and his wife, Beth, felt like they had dodged a bullet.

BETH POSTEMA: I think the anxiety lessened this morning, once we saw the gauges start to level off, that it was not rising as fast, that it looked like it was going to stay right about 41, not hit 42 or over. I think there was a little bit of collective sigh, a chance to catch your breath, and I think that's why you see so many people here today.

TOM BEARDEN: But officials are adamant that the danger is far from over. A major snowstorm is expected to drop fresh snow on the city today, making the ongoing task of keeping watch on the dikes just that much more difficult.