Fargo Residents Pack Their Bags, Flee City as Water Levels Rise

Residents of North Dakota's largest city worry sandbagged levees won't hold.

March 27, 2009, 7:47 AM

March 27, 2009— -- Thousands of Fargo, N.D., residents are fleeing the city as the Red River, now running at more than 45 times its normal volume, continues to rise.

During a news conference today, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the department has enough food and water to support 30,000 people for seven days and could bring in more if needed. Fargo expects no more than 100,000 to evacuate in the worst-case scenario. Napolitano said it's estimated that 23 percent of the evacuees will need shelter.

This evening the Red River hit 40.67 feet, up from 40.3 feet this morning. The river is more than 22 feet above flood stage, breaking a record set in 1897. Early today the National Weather Service said the river would crest at between 41 and 42 feet on Saturday. The estimate was revised later in the day to as high as 43 feet. Even worse, the river could stay crested for up to one week, forecasters said.

Fargo and the entire Red River Valley are essentially the dry bottom of a prehistoric lake, one of the flattest places on Earth.

"If you spilled water on a table, it would spread out quite a ways, and that's one of the things we're concerned about," said Frank Worley of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the city dikes had been shored up to protect the city up to 43 feet, thanks to a Herculean effort by volunteers.

But he said there were no plans to raise the dikes further, blaming a lack of time. "We're not going to proceed to take it to 44. Is that a gamble? We don't think so," Walaker told The Associated Press.

Several hundred more National Guard troops were ordered to report to Fargo, home to 92,000 people. Approximately 1,700 troops have already been deployed. Earlier in the day the Coast Guard rescued 82 people.

About 400 Fargo residents were evacuated from two low-lying areas overnight after leaks were detected in levees.

The mayor urged business to close to keep the roads clear for emergency teams, and this afternoon officials said schools in Fargo and Moorhead will be closed all next week.

Across the river in Moorhead, Minn., a second round of evacuations was ordered Friday for a large swath of the city near the river. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared seven Minnesota counties disaster areas today. He planned to visit the Moorhead area later today.

"In this is trying and difficult situation it's critical that Minnesotans pull together and act on advice from emergency responders to ensure everyone's personal safety," Pawlenty said in a statement to Moorhead residents. "Now is not the time to sit and wait for the worst, it's time to act to ensure a better outcome."

The mayor of Moorhead, Mark Voxland, went door to door asking residents to leave.

But Minnesotans Del and Judy Boschee weren't going anywhere.

"A person hates to lose everything," Del Boshcee said. "All you can do is protect it."

According to The Associated Press, Moorhead city spokeswoman Becky Jahnke said today officials are focusing on evacuating the approximately 2,660 homes – one-third of Moorhead households -- on the eastern side of the city bordering the river.

Thousands more people living along both sides of the Red River may be forced to evacuate.

Julie Molldrem and her family have spent a couple of days choosing which of their household treasures would go with them and which would stay in their Moorhead home, located on a street that runs along the river.

"Until it happens, you're in a state of denial," Molldrem told ABCNews.com. "You wait until the last minute."

Ultimately, items such as clothes, medication, insurance paperwork, titles to the house and irreplaceable photos won out. The rest was moved to the second story of their white colonial in hopes the water wouldn't crest that high.

Molldrem said she and her husband don't want to leave the house they've lived in for 15 years, but "I guess it's the only smart thing to do."

The Molldrems, along with their grown sons and three of their grandchildren, ages 6 to 15, were at their Rivershore Drive home. It wasn't as easy as just packing suitcases, she said. They have to remember to turn off the water, the gas and the electricity to try and stave off as much damage as possible.

Sewers in the area, she said, are starting to give out, but so far, theirs has held up. Their house, she said, is on the "safe side" of the river front street. Their neighbors on the other side have river walk-ups and are already getting water seepage in their homes.

Next door, the Footitts are planning to ride out the flood "until they make us leave," Tiffany Footitt, 36, told ABCNews.com.

With the help of crews from her father-in-law's construction company, the Footitts are constructing a four-foot wall from plywood and two-by-fours around their house with sandbags around the base. A generator, she said, will help keep the pumps going and the town has promised to keep the electricity on as long as possible.

"This is our house. This is our home," she said, adding that their house belonged to her husband's grandmother for 40 years before they moved in. "This is all you have."

Though they have already evacuated their two Brittany spaniels to her mother's house and parked their cars in a nearby grocery store parking lot for a quick getaway, Footitt said they're planning do everything they can to keep the water out.

Molldrem, 64, said she and her husband haven't finalized their evacuation plans, but will likely stay with one of their sons out of town. A third son -- they have five in total along with a daughter -- lives in Fargo near the water treatment plant. He, too, she said, is struggling.

"This is unprecedented," she said. "I have no idea what's going to happen."

When the river crests at 42 feet this weekend it will be far higher than the previous record of 40.1 feet set more than 100 years ago, and higher than the 39.5 feet during the devastating floods of 1997, one of the worst floods in U.S. history.

Overnight, Fargo's largest hospital evacuated about 180 patients. More than 100 prisoners were also transferred today.

Fargo is working on shoring up the main dike and building contingency dikes as backup protection. The problem, however, is that there are homes between the main dike and the contingency barriers that would be sacrificed.

Jerry Farol, who has lived in Fargo for more than 20 years, called for help when water started filling his basement. He was subsequently rescued by the Coast Guard.

"We had the dike built by about four or five o'clock," he said. "We had clay between the bags and the clay breached, you know. What else can you do?"

Despite residents' efforts to stack sandbags along the water's edge, the river is rising fast and leaking through the barrier. That's happening because instead of being pliable and fitting together like puzzle pieces, the sandbags have frozen solid.

"We are in uncharted territory," said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. "Nobody has ever seen the river at this level in the city of Fargo since the beginning of history."

Sheets of ice on the river are also complicating the situation, blocking the flow of water and forcing it instead to flow into many communities. Ice on the river also makes it hard to get to people in need of help, and tricky for them to get through the water and out of their homes.

Downstream from Fargo in Oxbow, N.D., air boats travel across the floodwaters and ice looking for residents who need assistance.

"What we're looking for when we go through the neighborhoods is anybody that's outside," said PO2 Nicolas Jupp of the U.S. Coast Guard. "We're gonna stop the vessel. We're gonna call out to them, see if they're OK or not."

It could be a week before the high-water level recedes.

In a welcome departure, no precipitation is expected through Sunday. Three to 6 inches of snow, however, are possible Monday.

Swelling Red River Prompts Evacuations

North Dakota's largest city released evacuation plans late Thursday for its 92,000 residents.

By Thursday night, cracks had started forming in an earthen levee holding back the swelling Red River, prompting officials to order the evacuation of a nearby neighborhood and nursing home.

Officers were going door to door in the River Vili neighborhood to order out residents of about 40 houses and the Riverview Estates nursing home.

The rising river waters forced city officials to call on thousands of additional volunteers Thursday in a race to raise the levees.

One volunteer told ABC News that "to raise a whole foot is a monumental event," requiring millions of sandbags.

"I hope we're not doing this all for nothing," said Donna Decker, who was packing sandbags in Fargo's indoor stadium. "I just hope it works."

"I said, 'I'm not leaving.' I don't care, but overnight the basement took on water," said Dorothy Sealy, who was rescued by the Coast Guard, from a stretcher.

"If you know you need to get out, we need you to get out today," Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney told residents, warming of the conditions expected to arrive.

Thousands of volunteers from across the state worked around the clock Wednesday to hold back the water. Local universities and high schools canceled classes to lend manpower to the city for the sandbagging effort.

"The water's coming up. The snow's coming down. The rain is coming down. It's crazy," said Eric Lorenz, a sandbag volunteer who waded through 6 inches of snow.

Near Bismarck, officials were breathing easier Thursday after the Missouri River dropped two feet after C-4 explosives were used to break up car-size blocks of ice that were clogging the river and sending water over the banks.

The National Guard has determined that a third round of blasts won't be needed to break up what remains of the dangerous ice jam.

Huge chunks of ice started piling up Monday at a bend in the Missouri River just south of Bismarck. The ice jam stretched half a mile wide at one point, disrupting the river's flow, causing the water to spill its banks. More than 1,700 people were forced to leave their homes.

"We had to relieve some of the backwater, which was threatening the people and property of Bismarck," said Eric Kelly, a member of the Advanced Explosives Demolition Inc.

Kelly's team, more accustomed to demolishing buildings than ice, was helicoptered in Wednesday afternoon to drill several dozen holes in the ice jam, filling each with 2 pounds of explosives.

On Wednesday, two explosions could be heard for miles as Advanced Explosives Demolition Inc. took on the dangerous and delicate operation to clear thousands of tons of rock-hard ice from the river.

The National Guard said hundreds of homes near Bismarck have been flooded, but that number could have been in the thousands if officials had not acted quickly and aggressively.

Tornado in Southeastern Mississippi

Wild spring weather continues to pummel other regions of the country as well. Severe weather and tornado warnings are in effect today for parts of the Deep South.

In Mississippi, Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency Thursday in parts of the state struck by a tornado. The tornado, with winds of 150 miles an hour, struck the town of Magee, Miss., injuring 28 people and destroying 40 homes.

More severe weather came overnight, including reports of downed power lines and a flash flood warning in New Orleans.

In Magee, the 100-year old Corinth Baptist Church was destroyed by this week's tornado. Resident Maegan Errington was scheduled to get married tomorrow at that church.

"Rain was my biggest fear, but I guess rain's really not that bad compared to not having a church," she said. Her wedding will be held in a nearby park tomorrow.

Though there were no reported deaths, homes were shattered into pieces, trees toppled, cars were blasted with debris, and the devastation stretched for 17 miles,

The National Weather Service said warning sirens went off 10 to 20 minutes before the twister hit.

On the town's outskirts, Daniel Frierson and his young family did not hear the alert.

"You heard the loud noise [and] everything was on top of us," he told ABC News.

Frierson covered his 9-year-old son with his body as the walls of their home came crashing down. This is the second house Frierson has lost to Mother Nature.

"I know we lost a lot of stuff. I'm just grateful we survived," he said.

ABC News' Andrew Fies, Sam Champion, Eric Horng and Barbara Pinto contributed to this report.