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N.D.’s Red River Valley Prepares for Massive Flooding

March 26, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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President Barack Obama declared North Dakota a federal disaster area Thursday due to floodwaters that have closed roads and bridges throughout the Red River Valley and that weather specialists say have yet to crest. The mayor of Fargo and North Dakota's governor talk about the situation.
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MARGARET WARNER: Thousands of volunteers raced against time in North Dakota and western Minnesota today, shoring up levees ahead of the rapidly rising Red River.

VOLUNTEER: The water’s coming up. The snow’s coming down. And the rain’s coming down, so it’s crazy.

MARGARET WARNER: The north-flowing river is threatening two cities in particular: Fargo, North Dakota’s largest, on its West Bank, and low-lying Moorhead, Minn., to its east.

Nearly all of the 550 homes in one township there could be swamped. Heavy rains and melting snow are swelling the river into what Fargo’s mayor called “uncharted territory.” The National Weather Service expects it to crest at a record 41 feet in Fargo this weekend. This morning, the water was at 38.5 feet.

EVACUEE: It was terrifying. The water wasn’t that deep this morning. And we woke up, and we got to the window, and there, there was the river. It was just right there.

MARGARET WARNER: This week’s cold snap is complicating efforts. Volunteers worked through snow and bone-chilling cold. Temperatures hovered around 20 degrees today.

Some volunteer college students got a break from the cold, filling sandbags inside the Fargodome.

Officials in Fargo said they’d raise their dikes to 43 feet, a foot higher than planned, and began construction on a second set of dikes around critical facilities. Hundreds have been forced from their homes in this city of 90,000. The Coast Guard was dispatched to rescue more than a dozen people trapped in their homes south of Fargo, including a 14-month-old child.

Neighbors pitched in to help, sandbagging each other’s homes. The Red River is also threatening several nearby towns and small cities, and there are still fears of flooding in other parts of the state.

There was some good news today across the state in the capital, Bismarck. The Missouri River dropped by two feet, easing the threat to that city and surrounding areas.

Last night, National Guard troops used explosives to help clear an ice jam the size of a football field so water could move downstream.

EMERGENCY WORKER: We had to relieve some of the pressure of the backwater.

MARGARET WARNER: But backed-up water from that blockage had already forced the evacuation of 1,700 people.

The entire state of North Dakota was declared a federal disaster area by President Obama on Tuesday.

Record-breaking waters

MARGARET WARNER: And for the latest on where things stand this evening, we're joined from Fargo by the city's mayor, Dennis Walaker, and by the governor of North Dakota, John Hoeven.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. Mayor, let me begin with you. Where do things stand right now? How fast is the river rising?

MAYOR DENNIS WALAKER, Fargo, N.D.: Well, it's approaching 39 feet, and that's -- you know, our record in the last 115 years is about 39, 39.5 feet. Like when I said about uncharted territory, we're going to go into areas that nobody has ever seen that high here in the Red River at Fargo.

So it's an unusual situation. We couldn't be more proud of our community and all of the federal and state agencies that are assisting us. And that's what this is all about. Win, lose, or draw, we're going to do what we have to do. If we fail -- and that's a possibility. This morning, I said a 3-to-1 ratio about -- and I still think they're good odds.

If we have to go higher, that's going to be difficult, and that's what the National Weather Service is talking about now, of raising the projections for us to 42 feet.

MARGARET WARNER: And your aim is to get those levees built up to 43 feet, is that right? So when you say you could fail, meaning what? You don't get to that level or the levees can't hold?

DENNIS WALAKER: Well, we are protecting more property than we've ever protected in the past. We're using HESCO barriers. We're using sandbags. We're using earth. People have been working 24 hours for well over a week. It's kind of like a war zone out there.

Failure is always possible. But we like to have some freeboard which is above the projected crest, and we had some assurances yesterday, and even as late as today, and then now we're looking at some changes in that. So we have some people out there assessing the process so, like I said...

MARGARET WARNER: So sorry, could you explain -- I'm sorry, Mr. Mayor. Explain what you mean by freeboard. What was it you were looking for?

DENNIS WALAKER: Freeboard is a difference -- freeboard basically is the difference between my left hand is where it's going to crest and having something above that. As this narrows, we want at least a one-foot difference between the level of the crest and the level of protection.

The picture across the state

MARGARET WARNER: Governor, what does it look like across the state?

GOV. JOHN HOEVEN, R-N.D.: We've seen flooding around the state, not only in our larger communities, like here in Fargo and Bismarck, but rural areas, our small communities.

In Bismarck, we actually had to go out and blow up ice jams to relieve the flooding there, and we've made real progress there.

Here in Fargo, we're working with the local authorities with a tremendous number of volunteers to do everything we can to get this flood protection in place. And the National Weather Service has continued to raise these crest projections.

But people are working very, very hard here to build up the flood protection. And we have on the order of 900 national guardsmen in here working. We're going to add another 500. And, you know, we appreciate all the work that people are doing, and we're going to continue that effort.

MARGARET WARNER: And just, Governor, what is the latest crest projection then? It was that it was going to crest at 41. Do they have a new number?

GOV. JOHN HOEVEN: At 1:30 today, the National Weather Service told me it was going to be just over 41 feet. Now they're saying it could be 42-plus. And so, again, we're continuing to build the protection higher -- our people are doing a tremendous job -- but, you know, this is a real challenge.

We're going to do everything we can. We're going to continue to do everything we can to give the community and this region the support to battle the flood.

MARGARET WARNER: Mayor Walaker, at what point -- I know you've evacuated some elderly and disabled, but at what point are you going to order mandatory evacuations?

DENNIS WALAKER: Well, as we speak right now, Moorhead, south of Interstate 94 is being evacuated, so traffic is a real disaster right here in Fargo as people try to get to their homes and evacuate and so forth.

We have not issued any evacuation. We're telling people to do a couple of things. Number one is to get grandma's dress off of the basement, any valuables, things that they cannot replace. They may need to make plans, get their pets to a shelter, get their small children out of there so that, if we do call a code red, which is a telephone operation of specific areas, if there's a failure, that they can evacuate.

But what's happening right now is our limited access is changing. We're closing streets, not only for the protection levels that need to be done, but then we're trying to get trucks through that area and now we have the evacuation in Moorhead.

So when I came to town from down south this evening, I had to use every method I know how to get to my office.

So one of the things about Fargo and the surrounding areas, they've all been extremely good about coming to help the city, so I don't want anybody to stop. We want to continue doing everything we can do to win, and at least we'll know that if something else happens.

High water expected for a week

MARGARET WARNER: And, Governor, we've heard reports that, once the river crests, it's going to stay at that high level for at least a week. Is that the case? And if so, what are the implications of that?

GOV. JOHN HOEVEN: Well, it's a slow crest. They're talking about now Sunday and Monday getting into that crest period, and then it stays up there for a number of days.

So, again, that's part of the challenge is building the dikes, the levees, the sandbagging effort, the HESCO barriers, setting all of those things up not only to meet the flood threat, but to sustain that protection over a period of days. And that's what we're doing. And that takes a lot of work.

And, you know, there's been a tremendous amount of work on the part of not only all the state, the local, the federal agencies, and, you know, all of the officials, but on the part of the public.

And, you know, we thank them for that effort and the tremendous number out working today. We need to continue that effort. And, yes, this is a crest that lasts for a period of time, so we understand that, and we're just going to have to hang in there and persevere through it.

And our people will. We have tremendous confidence in the people of the Red River Valley and our North Dakota citizens, as well as our neighbors to the east in Minnesota. We're very proud of them. And we appreciate all their efforts.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. And, Mr. Mayor, briefly, if you could, just -- you've been in public works for quite a while, I think you probably know a lot about sandbags. Can levees made of sandbags withstand that water pressure if it lasts for a whole week?

DENNIS WALAKER: Well, we had our people go through the sandbag efforts to determine the viability of the sandbags and the plastic over the process, and they all came back with an A-plus.

So can we handle this? As long as they stop from increasing the crest levels. That's really getting to be -- people are getting tired right now, and we keep asking them to plug themselves into the energy bunny and so forth and find some resolve to continue forward.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, Mr. Mayor and Governor, best of luck to you and thanks.

DENNIS WALAKER: Thank you.

GOV. JOHN HOEVEN: Thank you.