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Flood fighters in a race against rising river waters

April 7, 1997

MONTEVIDEO, Minn. (AP) _ Volunteers and National Guard troops piled more sandbags today to protect this town against a new danger: floating ice chunks threatening the levees built to keep out the rising Minnesota River.

The ice, broken up by high wind, was floating rapidly downstream toward the southwestern Minnesota town of 5,500, and temperatures that fell into the single digits overnight kept the ice from melting.

The wind drove one huge slab of ice up onto a riverside highway near the upstream town of Milan on Sunday and blocked the road.

Montevideo’s levee had already been piled high with clay and sandbags in anticipation of the Minnesota’s crest at 25 feet Tuesday _ 4 feet above flood stage. There was a 12-foot wall of sandbags around the water purification plant.

Minnesota and the Dakotas for weeks have prepared for floods that could be worse than those in 1993. The floods were blamed for 48 deaths that year and $10 billion in damage in nine states.

Jed Dixon, 42, who owns the movie theater in Montevideo, about 110 miles west of Minneapolis, has volunteered daily, sometimes working 18 hours a day filling sandbags and carrying them to the levee.

``If the dike goes then so does my business,″ said Dixon.

``Our baby sitter is volunteering her time. She’s taking care of five kids so we can be out here working on the dike,″ he said. ``I’ve seen everyone I know out here.″

In Breckenridge, along the Red River near the North Dakota state line, an all-day rain on Saturday suddenly turned into a full-scale snow storm.

Water that had been pouring into nearly every street in town froze in mid-wave. Car wheels became locked in ice as 6 inches of snow settled on top of everything in the town of 3,700.

It was a brutal one-two punch for volunteers who battled bitter temperatures, fierce winds and blinding snow before the sun came out for a couple of hours in early evening. The break provided a glimpse of the damage.

``Half our community _ at least _ is probably devastated,″ said town treasurer Blaine Hill. ``We’ve got hundreds of homes that are going to have basements full of water and sewage.″

Dozens of Minnesota towns are battling rising water that has been predicted for weeks in the wake of a brutal winter that left almost twice the normal amount of snow. What was left quickly melted last week.

Gov. Arne Carlson ordered about 800 members of the National Guard to duty in nearly a dozen cities, the largest mobilization since a meatpackers’ strike 11 years ago.

Officials fear more trouble as the snow melts.

The National Weather Service even issued a flood warning for the next two weeks along parts of three rivers in Minnesota _ the Minnesota, Mississippi and St. Croix.

And dikes in Breckenridge already have washed out in several places and ``are essentially nonexistent,″ said county emergency management director Jack Thompson.

In Wahpeton, N.D., across the Red River from Breckenridge, Marlin Galde and Frank Gregor pumped sewage Sunday from a dormitory basement inundated with water at the North Dakota State College of Science.

``We’re not winning,″ Galde said. ``It’s coming up through all the drains and we can’t stop it.″

At Watertown, S.D., about 2,000 of the city’s 20,000 residents had been evacuated during the weekend because of flooding from the Big Sioux River and Lake Kampeska. Some of them could begin returning home today, Gov. Bill Janklow said.

The city was still under a state of emergency this morning.

``We’re asking no travel in or out of the city of Watertown until at least noon,″ Mayor Brenda Barger said, ``and business and industries are not going to open, either.″

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