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The memorial on the Main Avenue bridge sits just above floodwaters Tuesday as seen from the Moorhead side. (Michael Vosburg/ The Forum)

Flood fight turns white in Fargo-Moorhead

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FARGO - The Red River continued to retreat Tuesday from its record high, dipping below 38 feet and clearing the way for business and roads to return to normal and for evacuees to return home.

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The cautious steps toward ordinary life came as a blast of wet snow caked Moorhead and Fargo with 10 inches, a walloping that could play a role in the river rising again - a secondary crest weather service forecasters are confident will top 37 feet.

Fargo officials, who had asked all "non-essential" businesses to stay closed since last week, gave the green light to reopen at 8 a.m. today. Mayor Dennis Walaker said some business owners were unhappy to be closed for days, but it was a necessary move that may have prevented longer closures.

"If we save our town, we'll resume rather quickly," Walaker said.

City Engineer Mark Bittner said beginning today and Thursday, city crews will be able to open holes in some contingency levees in Fargo. City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said he was particularly pleased to hear the dike on 40th Avenue South, a street that is usually part of his morning commute, should open up to limited traffic today.

The thousands of residents in both cities who evacuated late last week should soon be able to come back.

Moorhead Mayor Mark Voxland said the city's last remaining voluntary evacuation order, for the area south of Interstate 94 and west of Eighth Street, may be lifted today or Thursday.

Fargo officials said many of the vulnerable populations who were moved from the city - most of them residents of hospitals and nursing homes - could begin returning Thursday.

Meanwhile, dramatic scenes similar to those south of the metro area a week ago unfolded to the north. While there were no rescues in Clay or Cass counties Tuesday, U.S. Customs and Border Protection saved one resident and four dogs by helicopter 25 miles north of Grand Forks, N.D., where the Red was as wide as seven miles.

Signs of recovery began to show. Officials in Moorhead and Fargo urged homeowners who need work done on their houses to check the backgrounds of contractors and to hire local workers if possible.

Despite early indications of progress, enough tension was lingering to prevent Fargo from conducting the emergency siren test usually held monthly at 1 p.m. on the first Wednesday.

With the threat of April flooding still strong, officials also emphasized vigilance. Voxland advised owners of homes to keep their private sandbag dikes in place. The state emergency operations center in Minnesota said wind-driven waves could pose problems for dikes on both sides of the still-icy and bloated Red River.

"It's hard on the emotions when you come down because you think you've escaped it, but we might go back up again," Mahoney said.

Andy McLean, medical director of the North Dakota Department of Human Services, said it's important to keep in mind the three r-words of emotional health: rest, routine and relationships. All three help reduce stress, he said.

Tuesday's snow brought stress for those who had to drive in it, though local law enforcement reported little accident trouble. Interstate 29 from Grand Forks to the South Dakota border was closed for much of the day, with no-travel advisories throughout the region.

Fargo police Sgt. Ross Renner said even roads in the city were relatively empty, with only eight accidents from midnight to midafternoon Tuesday.

Still, the blanketing made problems for those who had urgent matters. Red Cross emergency vehicles couldn't get to dike patrols to deliver food and drinks.

Cheri Schoenfish and her family relocated to a south Fargo apartment because the basement of their home in Briarwood, just south of Fargo, is full of water and fuel oil spilled during the flooding. Heat and electricity are off, so the family visits the house daily to run water to prevent pipes from freezing.

With I-29 closed, they couldn't get to the home, though Schoenfish was still hopeful because temperatures were about 30 degrees and the basement water keeps the house warmer.

The snow had no effect on the river's fall Tuesday. It dropped to 37.67 feet by 7:15 p.m., according to the National Weather Service, putting it below the 38 feet at which Fargo has permanent flood protection. This means water is no longer up against many of the city's dikes, Mahoney said.

Now the question is what comes next. Weather service forecasts call for the Red falling near a foot each day through the weekend.

But within two weeks, the weather service predicts with "strong confidence" flooding to more than 37 feet. If the Red River basin gets 2 inches to 2.5 inches of moisture in that time, the high end of the projection calls for a second crest between 40 and 41 feet. The snow system early this week produced about 1.5 inches of moisture.

Yet John Wheeler, chief meteorologist at WDAY-TV, said it's far too early to estimate how high a second crest might be because the snow and ice won't start to melt for days.

"We don't know, and neither does the National Weather Service," he said.

Walaker said city officials wouldn't be calling for the return of at-risk evacuees if they thought they would be in danger.

Forum staff reporters Dave Olson, Kelly Smith, Helmut Schmidt and Amy Dalrymple contributed to this report

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