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

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

ByABC News
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.