Fargo, Moorhead go into watch mode
Moorhead and Fargo battled levee leaks and breakouts and ordered more evacuations Friday, as primary sandbagging efforts shut down and the cities went into watch mode with the Red River already at record height.
The flooding spurred unprecedented actions:
* Moorhead issued a voluntary evacuation for much of its southern half as a precautionary measure with the river forecasted to crest at 41 to 42 feet, and as high as 43 feet, on Sunday, a day later than was earlier predicted.
* Fargo and Moorhead schools canceled classes for next week in anticipation of a prolonged flood fight.
* Fargo police and North Dakota National Guard members took strict control of several major thoroughfares, giving trucks faster access to areas in need of dikes and sandbags. Restrictions were lifted at 6 p.m. on roads north of 32nd Avenue South.
The Red River made some history of its own, nudging past its 112-year-old record crest of 40.1 feet about 2:15 a.m. Friday, while most F-M residents were sleeping - and one south Fargo neighborhood was being evacuated.
By afternoon, city officials were encouraged that the Red appeared to be leveling off. From 12:15 to 9:15 p.m., the river rose just 13 hundredths of an inch, to 40.79 feet.
The National Weather Service didn't change its crest prediction.
"We're confident in the 41- to 42-foot crest," said Dave Kellenbenz, a senior meteorologist.
The nation's eyes also focused more tightly on the Fargo-Moorhead area.
President Barack Obama reached out by phone to the governors of both states and to Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker, offering well wishes and federal support for local efforts. He planned to express his support for the people of Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota and praise the volunteers during his weekly radio address today, the White House said in a news release.
The community braced for historic river levels that forecasters said could last for a week or longer.
Fargo City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said it was time to "stand and defend" the city's dikes.
Fargo weighs evacuation
Steve Stoner walked through the white French doors leading to his backyard, a sandbag dike separating him from the Red River threatening the home he fled in the middle of the night.
"Last night when we left, I really thought we'd never come back in," he said Friday morning. "I just thought we'd come back to mud."
But Stoner and most of those living in the roughly 150 houses east of Fourth Street South between South River Road and Lindenwood Drive returned to dry homes.
"Now, I'm kind of re-energized," Stoner said.
Code Red calls and police and firefighters going door to door alerted the residents to evacuate the area about 2 a.m. Friday after officials found what appeared to be a crack in the dike along the Red River.
Police Chief Keith Ternes said the evacuation went smoothly. Many residents already had bags packed because the city had previously told those living between primary levees and contingency dikes that they may have to leave at a moment's notice, he said.
Two or three individuals wouldn't evacuate, and police didn't try to force them to, so it was actually a voluntary evacuation despite first being reported as mandatory, Ternes said.
Friday morning, Greg Danz and his brother hoisted luggage and a bicycle over a sand-filled Hesco wall into a pickup box. His was among two homes that got water in the basement.
"They managed to get it stabilized, so I've only got about 2 feet down there, so it's way better than what it could have been," he said.
An Army Corps of Engineers official said the dike was fixed, but officials were concerned the sandbag dikes may not be high enough.
Fargo sent out another Code Red message Friday afternoon, strongly encouraging residents of Harwood Drive, Hackberry and South River Drive to voluntarily evacuate.
The city also asked that residents who live within a contingency dike area and aren't capable of walking out on their own to voluntarily relocate. The city said it may activate a mandatory evacuation advisory, as Cass County did for several subdivisions south of Fargo on Friday.
That means residents will be strongly urged to evacuate, but they won't be arrested if they don't, officials said.
Mahoney said officials were concerned about the swollen river's effects on dikes and the potential for it to wash away homes. At the same time, they understand how hard it is for homeowners to leave.
"We may have them sign a waiver just to say, you know, 'I understand there's some risks to do this, but I still would like to stay with my home,' " he said. "You know, it's very hard to pull somebody off a house."
Fargo had voluntarily evacuated two neighborhoods but hadn't lost any homes, officials said.
The city planned to dispatch 58 two-person teams of National Guard members to check dikes at least once every two hours and assist with pumping water behind them if necessary.
Sandbags were stationed in garages near diked areas in case of emergency.
The Fargo Fire Department and National Guard had response teams in place to respond to dike and levee problems.
Teams had responded to a number of breakouts and leaks by nightfall, but "nothing too serious at this point," Fire Capt. Terry Wagner said at 8:30 p.m.
At least two Code Red alerts Friday evening called on north Fargo neighbors to volunteer sandbagging efforts to bolster diking efforts.
Chad Peterson, one of the volunteers who turned out, said at least 400 people turned out in the El Zagal neighborhood.
Moorhead scrambled to protect public infrastructure Friday, moving the county's emergency operations center from the Moorhead Law Enforcement Center to the nearby Clay County Courthouse.
The LEC was then ringed with sandbags as a precautionary measure.
The Moorhead Post Office was also sandbagged and crews worked around the city to control street flooding caused by floodwater entering the storm sewer system.
As of late Friday, the city had logged about 10 dike breaks, but officials said only one of them, at Rivershore Drive and 37th Avenue South, was considered serious. In that case, firefighters and residents patched the break and worked into the night to reinforce the flood wall.
Officials did not have figures on how many people left their homes after the southern half of the city and a northside neighborhood were strongly urged to evacuate.
They said, however, there were indications that the number is substantial.
As of Friday night, about 60 people had taken advantage of a shelter set up at Moorhead High School.
Anyone affected by the flood can use the American Red Cross shelters being set up in the areas, a Red Cross official said.
The Red River Valley's flooding was on the radar of federal officials.
"I can tell you the eyes of America are on Fargo ... and they're getting a very good impression of what the people of North Dakota are like," said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.
In his daily press briefing, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Friday that the White House is monitoring the situation. He also urged residents here to follow local officials' advice to evacuate if need be.
It was a message echoed by U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in an interview with reporters Thursday, relaying that the department and FEMA are prepared to help 30,000 evacuated residents seeking refuge in shelters.
Acting FEMA Administrator Nancy Ward told reporters at Fargo City Hall that the agency is ready to coordinate with the state to provide food, generators, cots and other supplies.
"The mayor of Fargo and his group have done just a phenomenal job in bringing to bear a flood fight that probably is not matched anywhere else at the local level," she said.
Confident in crest
The National Weather Service remained confident Friday in predicting a Red River crest of 41 to 42 feet in Fargo-Moorhead beginning Sunday, but allowing for a possible 43-foot peak.
That word came as forecasters were watching another storm system moving in from the west that could bring more snow to the area on Monday.
The track of the storm remains uncertain, but any snow would come at a time of sustained high Red River levels in Fargo-Moorhead.
The cold snap that settled over the valley seemed to help to hold back flows into streams and rivers.
"All the precipitation right now is locked up in the form of snow," said Dave Kellenbenz, a senior weather service meteorologist. "That's good news."
But forecasters' computer model, deluged with unprecedented river flows and stages, remains plagued by uncertainty, and that accounts for the possibility the river could jump to 43 feet, he said.
During a news conference by Fargo city officials, broadcast on some television channels, the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for central Cass County for a dike breach near the city's water treatment plant.
The alert, issued nearly seven hours after the city ordered residents to evacuate the area, caused confusion among the public.
The delayed alert actually was a mistaken reissuance of a flash-flood alert put out hours earlier, the result of miscommunication between staff, Brad Bramer of the weather service said.
Forum reporters Dave Olson, Kelly Smith and Patrick Springer contributed to this article.