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Red River crests but flood-weary Plains towns not out of danger

April 12, 1997

FARGO, N.D. (AP) _ The swollen Red River reached its highest point this century Saturday, a slow-moving disaster edging its way north toward a dozen more communities waiting behind sandbag fortresses.

After two weeks of creeping toward an anticipated record high, the river crested at 37.58 feet _ 20 feet above flood stage but short of the record of 39.1 feet set in 1897.

Most of the city of 74,000 was dry behind its floodwalls. But officials warned that the crest was no reason for people to let their guard down after weeks of building homemade dikes and fortifying their homes with sandbags.

``When the crest hits, everybody says, `Hey, let’s get the champagne,′ but that’s not the case until you get all 7 or 8 feet of water off those dikes,″ Dennis Walaker, Fargo’s operations manager, said Saturday.

It will be another week before Fargo is out of danger, Walaker said, predicting the north-flowing river would begin falling about 4 to 6 inches Sunday. ``That’s not very quickly when it’s got to drop 20 feet,″ he said.

Temperatures climbed in the 40s Saturday, bringing out sightseers who lined the railing at a parking garage across the river in Moorhead, Minn. They snapped photos of street signs poking above the murky water.

``My folks have been calling every day,″ said Abraham Irizarry, a Moorhead resident whose parents live in New York. ``They want to see if it’s all right, and if it’s as bad as they say on TV.″

The warmer temperatures also posed a new threat that giant slabs of ice floating downstream could rupture sandbag dikes or jam up behind bridges. Many roads already were closed in the area.

There was, however, at least one bright sign. The 1,650 residents of Casselton, about 20 miles west of here, had their power back after nearly a week in the dark.

``We’ve got full water back, too, so we’re really happy where we’re at,″ said Tom Sinner, a city council member. ``The only problem is it’s a little brown with rust, but under the circumstances ... I don’t think anybody’s complaining.″

The bloated river had been rising for nearly two weeks across the vast prairie that spans the Minnesota-Dakota border. At least eight deaths have been blamed on the weather.

Flooding had been expected following the winter’s staggering 120-inch snowfall, but conditions were aggravated by last weekend’s double hit: a pounding rainstorm followed by a blizzard that dumped up to 2 feet of snow.

Communities north of Fargo have been watching the situation there closely for clues as to how serious the situation will become in their own towns.

Grand Forks, 75 miles north of here, had completed work on all its dikes, raising them all to 52 feet as a precaution _ 3 feet above the expected crest. But one official said no one was at ease yet and won’t be for weeks to come.

``Everyone here is at a very high state of readiness,″ said Jim Campbell, Grand Forks County’s emergency management director.

The Red River, which flows into Canada’s Lake Winnepeg, is expected to crest in Grand Forks in about two weeks.

Campbell said the city and volunteers have been working night and day, filling more than 1 million sandbags. Another million will be needed before the crest, he said.

More than 560,000 of the sandbags will be handed out to residents to build dikes around their property.

``We have a very high level of concern about ice dams building up at bridges, causing damage to our dikes,″ Campbell said. ``We’re going to be watching it all very closely.″

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