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State of emergency declared as Fargo revs up for flood fight; students asked to help with sandbagging

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Floodwaters approach downtown Fargo as seen in this April 17, 1997, aerial photograph looking northwest. Forum file photo2 / 3
Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney, flanked by Fire Chief Steve Dirksen, Police Chief David Todd and Public Works Director Ben Dow, talks about sandbagging and emergency measures the city will take in preparation for flooding during a news conference at City Hall on Monday, March 18. David Samson / The Forum3 / 3

FARGO — Metro area leaders took initial steps Monday, March 18, to prepare for a community-wide fight against a potential Red River flood that threatens to break the 2009 record.

Fargo Mayor Tim Mahoney declared a state of emergency to enable flood-fighting efforts to kick into high gear as the city prepares for a 10 percent probability of a 40.3-foot crest, a flood almost as severe as the record 2009 flood of 40.84 feet.

Mahoney's declaration means that the city's Sandbag Central sandbag-filling station will open Tuesday, March 26, and volunteers will be asked to make 1 million sandbags in case needed for emergency protection.

The city is preparing for a river level of 41 feet, the mayor said. Fargo city officials are confident in the number of sandbags they plan to fill. Mahoney said the city has a lot more lead time than in 2009 — workers had about 10 days to prepare a decade ago.

Fargo famously refused to evacuate during the 2009 flood. When asked where residents should go if an evacuation is necessary, Mahoney said, “In the city of Fargo, our saying is evacuation is not an option.”

He added that there would be areas for shelter, including West Fargo and Casselton, N.D.

The Cass County Commission also signed an emergency declaration Monday to activate its plans to fight floodwaters and aid communities and rural residents.

Moorhead Mayor Johnathan Judd plans to issue an emergency declaration this week, City Manager Chris Volkers said. The City Council would have 72 hours after Judd’s declaration to approve a resolution to extend the declaration, she said. The City Council has a meeting on Monday, March 25, but Volkers said she set a tentative special meeting for Friday, March 22.

The signing of emergency declarations is the first major step not only in preparing for flooding but also seeking reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, leaders said.

'We cannot be complacent'

Fargo leaders expect it will take nine or 10 days to fill 1 million sandbags, which city officials will stockpile as a precaution. Officials plan for volunteers to staff 12-hour shifts and will use two "spider" sandbag-filling machines, capable of making about 100,000 sandbags per day.

"We cannot be complacent," Mahoney said. "Once again we will need the spirit of Fargo across all our efforts."

Moorhead and Clay County have been working together to set up an emergency operations center, though the site has yet to be determined, Volkers said. The city is trying to figure out how many sandbags it will need, but Volkers said it likely will be “hundreds of thousands.”

“We think we are going to make the sandbags by hand and ask for volunteers,” she said.

Mahoney said there's concern about finding enough volunteers to fill sandbags. More information on signing up to help with sandbagging efforts will be released this week, Fargo city officials said.

A spokesperson for Fargo Public Schools told The Forum the district received a request from the city to help with sandbagging Monday morning, but details are still being worked out.

Details also are being worked out with West Fargo Public Schools, but a spokesperson said eighth-graders likely would help fill bags and high schoolers would be asked to place them.

There hasn't been discussion about Moorhead students sandbagging, Superintendent Brandon Lunak said. The city has yet to declare an emergency or request volunteers, so that could change in the coming days.

About 20 percent of Fargo has not had to fight a flood, Mahoney said. It may be hard to convince people to sandbag, he added, but he's hopeful residents will exceed his expectations.

Mid-April crest predicted

The city of Fargo has built more than 21 miles of permanent levees and flood walls, and would need an estimated 20 miles of temporary levees and sandbag walls to defend against a flood equal to the 2009 record, said Nathan Boerboom, a city engineer.

The current 100-year floodplain, as defined by FEMA, is 39.3 feet, he said. Unprotected, a flood of that level would threaten 2,025 properties in Fargo.

The river is expected to crest here around April 15, according to the National Weather Service. So far, the thaw has been gradual, which helps to provide time to put protective measures in place.

"No major weather systems are expected to impact the region through the end of the work week," a weather service advisory said. Though, the region could see "a switch to a more active weather pattern," with a system possibly arriving late in the weekend or early next week.

"This system could bring snow, rain, or a mix of precipitation types to somewhere across the Northern Plains but it is far too soon to pinpoint any specifics at this time," the weather service said.

Regular flood preparation briefings at Fargo's City Hall are set to begin Monday, March 25. The weather service plans to release spring thaw updates twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, until runoff is fully underway.

Moorhead has done a lot of work to protect the city, though there are gaps, Volkers said. She noted the Oakport neighborhood, annexed by Moorhead in 2015, where the city hasn’t been able to buy out properties for levees, she said.

“We need to focus efforts on them as well and help them out,” she said, adding that unprotected gaps will need clay levees.

Moorhead city staff are shifting from winter operations directly into flood fighting, and with the hard winter, workers have not had much time to rest, Volkers said. The city is in planning mode, and there will be calls for volunteers, she said.

“We need the community’s help,” she said.

Fargo Forum reporter Kim Hyatt contributed to this report.

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