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Red River’s overflowing tributaries hint at what’s to come

April 9, 1997

HARWOOD, N.D. (AP) _ Crews used dynamite on ice jams clogging flood-swollen rivers Wednesday in an attempt to drain backed-up water away from the Red River Valley before it rises even higher.

Communities along the Minnesota-North Dakota state line wrestled with overflowing small rivers and girded for the crest of the Red River itself.

People’s lives already had been defined by miles of pooled water and vast sheets of ice, the double hit of snowmelt-flooding and a brutal weekend blizzard.

``I’ve lived in this area all my life, so I know what a flood is. But I’ve never seen anything like this,″ said Ruby Zvirovski, filling sandbags in her driveway near Harwood, 500 yards from the spreading Red River.

At Abercrombie, halfway between Fargo and Wahpeton, crews twice threw dynamite in an effort to loosen an ice jam that was stuck in the river like a giant cork.

``It didn’t do anything,″ said Richland County Road Supervisor Harlan Bladow. The explosives needed to be put underneath or embedded in the ice to be effective, but getting it there was too dangerous, he said.

Water behind one ice jam at the twin towns of Breckenridge, Minn., and Wahpeton, N.D., was expected to rise by as much as 2 1/2 feet by this weekend. Officials didn’t know when it would finally break.

``That type of thing decides to go when it wants to go,″ said National Weather Service meteorologist Craig Edwards.

The weather service said ice jams could raise river levels as much as 3 feet.

The region’s worst flooding in decades started last week when temperatures hit the 60s, quickly melting the winter snow that was up to twice as deep as normal. Then rain began Friday and turned into a blizzard that piled up to 2 more feet of snow across the prairie.

The blizzard was followed by record cold that turned snow and floodwaters into sheets of ice.

At Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city, forecasters raised the projected crest of the Red, expected late Thursday or early Friday, to 39 to 39 1/2 feet _ 1 1/2 feet higher than the previous prediction and about 2 feet above the record.

Flood stage in Fargo is 17 feet, but permanent dikes protect the downtown from the north-flowing river.

Residents and city employees stepped up the pace to add another foot of sandbags to emergency levees elsewhere in town, while temperatures never warmed past the 20s.

Randy Naslund left his job at 10 a.m. and headed home as soon as he heard the revised crest prediction. Within minutes of starting to sandbag his back yard, about 20 volunteers showed up to help.

``I don’t know hardly any of these people,″ he said.

Northwestern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota cover the bed of a glacial lake that disappeared 9,000 years ago. The rivers that drain it are too young to have carved deep valleys, so floods spread outward.

``This is one of the flattest places on earth, and this is a flood that’s measured in width instead of depth,″ said Donald Schwert, a geologist at North Dakota State University in Fargo. ``We’ll be looking at a single flood event that will impact several thousand square miles.″

The situation was less grave in southern Minnesota along the lower Minnesota River, where flood-control structures _ including those in Minneapolis and St. Paul _ are extensive and most people live outside the flood’s direct path.

The effect of the cold and the flood on the area’s farmers already was severe.

Many farmers haven’t had electricity since the blizzard, so they can’t milk their cows, said Minnesota Agriculture Commission Gene Hugoson. Because of the flood, those who have electricity cannot take their milk to market.

One farmer in the ice-covered town of Ada in northwest Minnesota lost all 40 of his hogs to the flood, and now he can see several calves that froze to death in his fields.

Flooding also will delay planting and some farmers could lose up to one-third of their yield this year. The total loss could outstrip the $1.5 billion that farmers suffered in the floods of 1993, Hugoson said.

At Harwood, a rural community that sits between the Red and Sheyenne rivers eight miles north of Fargo, a dike was built weeks ago but virtually everyone _ including students and jail inmates _ was on flood duty Wednesday.

``We’re worried about both rivers,″ said Fire Chief Paul Gourde. ``If the Red comes over, it’ll back up the Sheyenne and we’ll be sitting here in _ well, in a lot of water.″

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