FARGO, N.D. - Thousands of shivering, tired residents got out while
they could and others prayed sandbagged levees would hold Friday, as
the surging Red River threatened to unleash the biggest flood North
Dakota's largest city has ever seen.

 

 

The agonizing decision to stay or go came as the
final hours ticked down before an expected crest Sunday, when the
ice-laden river could climb as high as 13 metres, nearly a metre higher
than the record set 112 years ago. The city got a one-day reprieve
Friday night when the U.S. National Weather Service pushed its crest
projection back from Saturday to Sunday afternoon, saying frigid
temperatures had slowed the river's rise. While the weather service
targeted the crest near 12.8 metres, it said feet 13 is still a
possibility.

 

 

"It's to the point now where I think we've done
everything we can," said resident Dave Davis, whose neighbourhood was
filled with backhoes and tractors building an earthen levee.

 


"The only thing now is divine intervention."

Even after the floodwaters crest, the water may not
begin receding before Wednesday, creating a lingering risk of a
catastrophic failure in levees put together mostly by volunteers.

National Guard troops fanned out in the bitter cold
to inspect floodwalls for leaks and weak spots and residents piled
sandbags on top of 20 kilometres of snow-covered dikes. The freezing
weather froze the bags solid, turning them into what townspeople hoped
would be a watertight barrier.

Hundreds more Guard troops poured in from around the
state and neighbouring South Dakota, along with scores of Red Cross
workers from as far away as Modesto, Calif.


Homeowners, students and small armies of other volunteers filled sandbags in freezing temperatures.

The river swelled Friday night to 12.4 metres - more
than 6.7 metres above flood stage and beyond the previous high-water
mark of 12.2 metres in 1897. In one flooded neighbourhood, a man
paddled a canoe through ice floes and swirling currents.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker cautiously expressed hope
the river would stay below 13 metres - the limit of the reinforced
dikes. Walaker said there was not enough time to build the levees any
higher.

Fargo escaped devastation from flooding in 1997,
when Grand Forks was ravaged by an historic flood 113 kilometres to the
north. This year, the river has been swollen by heavier-than-average
winter snows, combined with an early freeze last fall that locked a lot
of moisture into the soil. The threat has been made worse by spring
rains.

"I think the river is mad that she lost the last
time," said engineer Mike Buerkley, managing a smile through his dark
stubble as he tossed sandbags onto his pickup truck after working 29
straight hours.

Some 1,700 National Guard troops helped reinforce
the dikes and conduct patrols for leaks. Police restricted traffic to
allow trucks laden with sandbags, backhoes and other heavy equipment to
get through.

Guard member Shawna Cale, 25, worked through the
night on a dike, handing up sandbags that were 14 to 18 kilograms and
frozen-solid.

"It's like throwing a frozen turkey," said
sister-in-law Tawny Cale, who came with her husband to help with the
sandbags and then help Shawna move her valuables as she evacuated.


"When it hurts when you lift your arms, you have to stop," Shawna Cale said.


City Administrator Pat Zavoral said the cold firms up the bags, strengthening the dikes.


"If you lay loose bags and now they're frozen, they're like a frozen ice cube. It's good shape."

Authorities said they were keeping about 300,000 of
the three million sandbags they had Friday in warm buildings for use as
needed. Sandbags that are already frozen when piled onto a dike do not
fit together snugly.

But the freezing temperatures actually helped stave
off worse flooding; officials said the river was rising more slowly
because the freezing temperatures prevented snow from melting.

The White House said it was monitoring flooding in
North Dakota and Minnesota and President Barack Obama has dispatched
the acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the
region. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama has personally
spoken with the governors of both states and with Fargo's mayor.

The president called North Dakota Senator Kent
Conrad on his cell phone during a news conference in Bismarck on
flooding problems there and in Fargo.


"If there's anything more that we can do, we will do it," Obama said after Conrad held the phone up to a microphone.

Authorities in Fargo and across the river in Moorhead
- a city of about 30,000 people - expanded evacuations Friday across
several blocks. About 2,600 households in Moorhead - about a third of
the city - were asked to leave their homes. Hundreds more in Fargo were
asked to evacuate.

Some residents were roused from their sleep around 2
a.m. local time Friday and told to leave after authorities found a leak
in a dike. They expected to be able to patch it securely.

More than 100 prisoners were taken from the county
jail in Fargo to other lockups in the region and Moorhead planned to
evacuate the police station because of encroaching floodwaters. U.S.
Senator Byron Dorgan said Northwest Airlines was sending two jetliners
to move hospital patients to safer areas.

The effort to fortify flood-prone neighbourhoods
took place across the city, with officials building a contingency dike
system as a second line of defence should the river breach riverside
neighbourhoods. But some residents were left between the two sets of
dikes.

"There are people who are angry about being on the
wrong side of the dike," said Tim Mahoney, a Fargo city commissioner
whose home is in one of the "wrong-side" neighbourhoods.


"We have a 500-year flood that we're combatting and we think we're doing as well as we can," Mahoney said.


Residents in another of those neighbourhoods placed pumps in their yards in hopes of keeping water out of their homes.


Tina Kraft took everything of value or importance in her basement and first floor and moved it upstairs.


"We've prepared for it as best we can," she said.


"We really just have to be ready for our house to be flooded."


Deanne Mason and her husband were awakened by the sound of backhoes and tractors building the backup dike.


"I'm not so worried about losing my house," she said.


"It's just stuff. But it's emotionally draining to watch this."

In the small town Oakport Township, just north of
Moorhead, fire crews watched as a fire destroyed a home surrounded by
sandbags that protected it from floodwaters.

Clay County Emergency Operations Center spokesman
Dan Olson said fire crews couldn't get closer than 60 metres from the
home because the area around it was so flooded. No injuries were
reported and the cause of the blaze was not immediately known.