Minneapolis Star Tribune, Brian Peterson/AP
Floating ice and water is carried by the overflow of the Red River in Moorhead, Minn.

Red River Floods Threaten Fargo-Moorhead Area

March 27, 2009 12:30 PM
by Anne Szustek
The Red River rose to 40.18 feet by early Friday, breaking a 112-year-old record and forcing evacuations.

Red River of the North Projected to Crest at 43 Feet

By Friday at 5:15 a.m. CDT, the Red River of the North, which forms the border between North Dakota and Minnesota, had risen to 40.32 feet, breaking the record of 40.1 feet set in April 7, 1897—and outpacing the floods of 1997 that left the Red River Valley with $2 billion in damage. The record was already broken overnight around 2:15 a.m., when the river crept to 40.15 feet, reported local paper The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead.

The river is predicted to crest at 43 feet Saturday, two feet higher than predicted Thursday, prompting more urgent sandbagging efforts in single-digit windchills; overnight evacuations began in some neighborhoods in Fargo, North Dakota's largest city, as well as across the river in the college town of Moorhead, Minn.

Tim Corwin, whose Fargo-area home is buffered by sandbags rising to 43 feet, told the Associated Press, "I've lived here 40 years and over a 30-minute span I've reached a point where I'm preparing to evacuate and expect never to sleep in my house again."

Patients were being airlifted and driven out of Fargo's largest hospital on Thursday to Minneapolis, Sioux Falls, S.D., and Bismarck, N.D., reported the AP.

Colleges and businesses in the Fargo-Moorhead area closed earlier this week to assist the sandbagging efforts. According to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, more than 10,000 volunteers took part in flood preparedness efforts. St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Chris Coleman was appealing to Twin Cities residents to head north to volunteer.

“It’s the urgency of it,” volunteer Kay Schwarzwalter told The Forum. “Time is of the essence.”
Breckenridge, Minn., located near the source of the Red River Valley of the North, emerged largely unscathed by the Red River flooding Tuesday, which crested earlier and lower than expected. Wilkin County engineer Tom Richels told Mankato, Minn. CBS/Fox station KEYC, 'We'll continue to monitor the outlying water as it comes this way and we certainly do have a lot of water over roads yet, but it's nothing that we can't manage at this point.'

Residents said earlier this week that these floodwaters were surging more quickly than those of the flood of 1997, which caused some $2 billion in damages and displaced thousands of residents. By Tuesday Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty had declared a state of emergency in seven counties.

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Background: 2008 Midwestern floods, dwindling Red Cross funds

Last spring’s floods across the Upper Midwest, considered the worst in 15 years, demonstrated that levees and bridges across the United States are not prepared to withstand an increased occurrence of flooding and natural disasters.

Some of the worst flooding occurred in Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when levees lining the Iowa River and Des Moines River broke. Parts of Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan and Indiana were severely flooded as well.

The extensive flooding nearly depleted the American Red Cross’ disaster relief funds. As of June 18, the organization had spent $15 million on the Midwest floods, but raised just $3.2 million in return. Prevailing economic conditions have also hampered the Red Cross’ fundraising efforts.

Historical Context: 1997 Red River of the North floods

The Red River of the North flows north along the North Dakota-Minnesota border to Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. The valley suffers major flooding about once a decade, according to the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. The flat prairies that gave rise to the region’s agriculture industry do not efficiently channel away extra water. Coupled with ground frozen well into springtime, heavy rain and snowmelt can render the region a soggy disaster.

This was the case in 1997, when Red River Valley received the average of three winters’ worth of snowfall in one season. Come spring, surging floodwaters engulfed at least 11,000 homes and businesses in the region and washed away some 13,000 head of livestock. A natural gas fire caused by the flooding torched 11 historic buildings in downtown Grand Forks, N.D. “You read in the Bible, the end of the world?” Patricia Owens, then the mayor of Grand Forks, told Forbes. "That's how it felt."

Only 20 percent of local residents had flood insurance at the time, according to Forbes. As of 2003, 28 percent of the region’s businesses had flood-incurred debt. In all, the area suffered some $2 billion in damages.

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