Officials stress need for volunteers, urge vigilance in flood fight
FARGO - Today marks a critical day for flood fighters to top off sandbag levees and build secondary dikes throughout the city.
A simple prayer kicked off the now daily flood meeting of officials leading the fight.
"We need all the help we can get," said Mayor Dennis Walaker, adding prayers were said at similar meetings when the city won its flood fight in 1997.
The Red River continued to rise overnight, reaching 38.19 feet to mark the third highest crest in recorded history.
The mark is less than the 40.1 feet in 1897 and 39.57 feet in 1997, although the National Weather Service predicts the Red River will eclipse both on its way to 41 feet by Saturday.
"I have used the term unchartered territory," Walaker said. "It's a learning curve" as officials determine how to best provide both primary and secondary defenses to the unprecedented forecast.
Officials pleaded with community members to turn out by the thousands today, while thanking volunteers who have poured into the area from across Minnesota, North Dakota and places as far away as Iowa, Michigan and Florida.
Officials praised volunteers for helping to fill 2.5 million sandbags in the past five-and-a-half days.
"We keep asking for one more good day, and we need another good day," Walaker said.
The city planned to have neighborhood meetings today at 9:30 a.m. for the immediate Oak Grove neighborhood and at 11 a.m. at Discovery Junior High for residents living south of 40th Avenue South. The meetings are designed to explain what is being done to protect the city and homes.
Walaker stressed that sandbag levees remain the city's primary defense, and secondary dikes are a precautionary measure.
"We are not abandoning anybody," said the mayor, who led the city's 1997 flood fight when he was the public works director.
If a dike is breached, Walaker said that the city needs to know immediately so they can try to contain the river's spillover.
City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said the city needs to get about 2,000 volunteers into neighborhoods today to place sandbags, while 300 to 400 are needed at both the Fargodome and Sandbag Central to continue filling them.
Mahoney said leaders want to top off sandbag levees in neighborhoods this morning and protect the city to a 43-foot river level. About 200,000 sandbags were delivered overnight for work in the following areas: the Drain 27 area north of 40th and east of I-29, Rose Creek, Douglas Creek, River Drive South, Meadow Creek, Timberline, Fox Run, Peterson Parkway, Woodcrest, Harwood/Hackberry and South River Road.
"This is a big day for us," Mahoney said. "We are going to defend every house."
Also, Mahoney said national media members were getting in the way Wednesday, disrupting work being done in staging areas.
The city has nearly finished its protective measures for the water treatment plant, and would soon begin focusing on sewer treatment plant protection.
Secondary dike work will begin in other neighborhoods this afternoon. In addition, the NP Avenue bridge will be closed this morning.
In southern Cass County, 46 people and 12 pets were rescued by boat Wednesday and 11 more rescues were scheduled for this morning, Sheriff Paul Laney said. Most residents left the Forest River subdivision, near the confluence of the Wild Rice and Red rivers south of Fargo, and the county planned to put a permanent closure on 76th Avenue South between University Drive and the Red River.
Most access will be impossible on nearly every road south of Fargo due to overland flooding.
"Access to areas south of Wild Rice will be difficult if not impossible," Cass County Engineer Keith Berndt said.
He also reported that a number of individual levees broke from the pressure of the rushing river water, but officials remain confident of its earthen dikes set up to protect some neighborhoods.
Laney said rescue crews are looking for a staging area north of Oxbow, which served them Wednesday.
"As the water moves north, our issues will move north," Laney said.
Many of the evacuations this morning are people who wouldn't leave Wednesday night, but had called early this morning. Laney said some of them were upset that rescuers wouldn't come out at 1 or 2 a.m. Rescue boats won't operate at night, he said.
"If you need to come out, you need to come out during the day," he said.
The city of Fargo also plans to release evacuation plans today on its Web site and through police, with people in certain segments of the city being asked to move to higher ground.
Police Chief Keith Ternes asked motorists to find alternate routes and try to stay off 25th Street, 10th Street and University Drive, which are main routes for trucks delivering sandbags and clay. He also asked motorists to slow down for the safety of emergency workers.
"We had a National Guard member who got nicked by a vehicle as it went by," he said.
Walaker walked into this morning's meeting carrying a large wooden staff decorated with an eagle just below the handle. He said Mahoney gave it to him "to spread the waters."