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A bulldozer shapes a clay dike on Oak Street in Fargo next to Mickelson Park softball diamonds Friday as flood preparations continue. The dike would protect the homes seen on the west side of the dike. (Dave Wallis/The Forum)

Flood-fighting 'Sandbag Central' cranks up

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FARGO - The flood-fighting machine ran into a couple of minor glitches Friday just as it was gearing up at Sandbag Central.

It didn't help that the North Dakota State University men's basketball team was playing Friday afternoon in its first Division I national champion game.

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That could have deterred some fans from volunteering in the first day of another athletic contest: filling 2 million sandbags to protect Fargo and Cass County from the flood on the Red River, expected to crest between 37 and 40 feet between March 28 and April 4.

Meanwhile, the Red River crept above flood stage Friday evening when the river surpassed a depth of 18 feet.

The loader for one of two "sandbag spider" machines broke, keeping it out of operation for several hours until it could be repaired.

At least the downtime coincided with the basketball game, said Bruce Grubb, enterprise director for the city of Fargo, who was overseeing Sandbag Central, the city's utility operations center.

Jennifer Johnson, Fargo, a student at NDSU, was one of about 290 volunteers filling sandbags mid-afternoon.

"It's not very hard," she said after 40 minutes of shovel work. "This is really important, especially for people who live along the river."

The First Link Volunteer Center asks volunteers to put in 3 or 4 hours - many volunteers will be needed to fill the estimated 1.5 million bags required in the city of Fargo, with another 800,000 for Cass County.

Today, beginning at 8 a.m., sandbagging at the center, 2301 8th Ave. N., will begin around the clock until enough bags are filled. Those who are able to make it after midnight are especially welcome, Grubb said, because that is usually a quieter time.

The center is capable of filling 250,000 to 300,000 bags a day. Noting that the crest forecast has elongated by three days, Grubb is hoping there might be more time. "Three days equates to 900,000 sandbags," he said, "so that's a big deal for us."

Volunteers are asked to call FirstLink at (701) 476-4000 before showing up.

Work has begun on emergency dikes, including one to protect the City Hall area of downtown on top of Second Street North from about Fifth to First avenues north.

"They're going to be going through the night, 24/7, until they get it done," said Jon Atkins, a city traffic engineer, who was directing trucks as they laid clay from the city landfill to form the dike.

"We're going as fast as we can until the rain hits," he said. "That's going to make everything 10 times harder."

But, Atkins' mood brightened when he recounted the four floods the city has fought successfully since the 1997 flood, which crested in Fargo at 39.57 feet.

"I think we'll do all right," Atkins said. "We've had plenty of experience."

Steve Poitras, who lives at 135 S. Terrace Dr. in Fargo, is a veteran flood fighter. His home, across from Oak Grove High School, overlooks the Red River from a bank.

He was busy Friday afternoon clearing snow and ice to prepare the ground for sandbags, which he expects will be arriving Monday or Tuesday.

Heavy rains expected next week - forecasts call for widespread rain of about an inch, with some areas receiving two or three inches - weighed heavily on Poitras' mind as he wielded his shovel.

"Of course, the greatest thing would be if the rain treated us lightly," said Poitras, a local television reporter and host. "The river will ultimately do what it decides to do."

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