Officials Give Red River 40 Percent Chance of Setting Record

Created: 04/18/2013 8:13 AM KSTP.com By: Cassie Hart

The National Weather Service is telling Fargo-area residents to prepare for record flooding along the Red River, but city officials say the updated forecast released Wednesday is not overwhelming.
    
The weather service said there's a 40 percent chance the north-flowing river could top the 2009 record of 40.84 feet, up from a 15 percent chance in the March flood forecast. Flood stage, or when the river first tops its banks, is 18 feet.
    
But homes and businesses in the area start being most affected when the river reaches 38 feet.
    
The most likely scenario calls for the river to peak between 39 and 41 feet at Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., in late April or early May, with a maximum possibility of 42 feet, weather service meteorologist Greg Gust said.
    
"Will this be the big one?" Gust asked, repeating the title of his forecast report. "Quite possibly."
    
Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said the numbers released by the weather service are manageable.
    
"I'm not saying we are overly confident, but confident we can do what we have to do to protect the city," Zavoral said. "If they had come out and told us it was going to be a 20 percent probability of 44 or 45 feet, then things would have got a little dicey.
    
The forecast is based on predictions for temperatures and precipitation over the next two weeks. It will be the latest Red River crest in history for the metropolitan area of about 200,000 people.
    
"This is uncharted territory," Gust said. "The snow water that is out there right now is sufficient for a big flood. And when it finally warms up, it could be dramatic for this type of a flood season.
    
Fargo officials said earlier this week they planned to protect the city to 41 feet with clay levees and sandbag dikes, which would likely affect about 200 homes. Zavoral said the city would stick to that plan - for now.
    
"We'll start out with this and then we'll see what happens," Zavoral said.
    
The Fargo-Moorhead area dealt with three straight years of major flooding beginning with the 2009 record event that forced thousands to evacuate and inundated about 100 homes. While the cost of fighting those floods rose into the hundreds of millions of dollars, the two cities learned lessons about holding back the water.
    
Jim Papacek, who lives near the river in the central part of Fargo, said the last sandbagging operation was done in "perfect chorus." First the trucks dropped off palettes of sandbags, then operators in Bobcat loaders moved them to the houses, and finally students were bussed in to place the bags.
    
"It is so much a synchronized system now," Papacek said. "I had ordered pizzas for the kids and they had to wait for the pizzas because they got done sandbagging so fast."
    
The two cities and corresponding counties also have built 25 miles of permanent levees and bought out about 500 homes. A 40-foot flood in Moorhead in 2009 would have required nearly 2 million sandbags to protect 250 homes. A 40-foot flood this year would require 163,000 sandbags around 38 homes.
    
The March forecast, based on historical probabilities, gave the river a 50 percent chance of peaking at 38 feet in Fargo. But that changed after the Fargo-Moorhead area received twice the normal precipitation since March 1 and cold temperatures delayed the thaw.
    
"We encourage people to prepare for a flood of record," Gust said.

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