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The Red River barely skims the deck bottom of Fargo's North Broadway Bridge on Sunday afternoon. The bridge was later closed. (Carrie Snyder/The Forum)

Forecasted flood crest coming earlier and is higher than first thought

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FARGO - Fargo-Moorhead and surrounding areas were inundated with bad news Sunday with a new predicted Red River flood crest that now could reach 39 to 41 feet and arrive as early as Friday - a foot higher and day earlier than originally forecast.

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Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker pleaded for stepped-up volunteer efforts as the city races to prepare for a flood that now appears likely to surpass the flood of 1997, which crested at 39.57 feet.

The worst recorded flood in Fargo's history was 1897, when the Red River climbed to 40.1 feet.

"Volunteers - it's time to take this thing seriously," Walaker said in a news conference Sunday afternoon, as a light rain began falling - the beginning of several days of forecast heavy rains falling on ground already saturated from fall rains and a sudden spring thaw.

To handle the higher crest, the number of sandbags needed to protect Fargo has jumped to 2 million - a daunting task given the next couple of days of rains turning to snow expected to hamper efforts at a critical time.

The higher projected river levels also mean more Fargo neighborhoods will be threatened and will require protection, in most cases a layer or two of sandbags, city officials said.

Engineers on Monday will issue a list of threatened neighborhoods in addition to the approximately 13 originally slated for protection.

The most immediate focus in Fargo: neighborhoods along the river between 32nd and 40th avenues south, an area that will require an estimated 350,000 sandbags.

"Our first line of protection is along the river," Walaker said. Truckloads of sandbags began pouring into southernmost Fargo Sunday.

Besides the ongoing plea for volunteers, city officials made multiple appeals for residents to cooperate, including a request for gawkers to stay away from areas near the river or areas where dikes or sandbagging operations are under way.

Issues area officials addressed Sunday:

- A major concern is traffic that will intensify today as thousands of people return to work. Police Chief Keith Ternes urged motorists to choose north-south routes as far from the river as possible and to use Interstates 29 and 94, if possible.

- Code Red alerts will be broadcast via telephone to areas of town that are not threatened, with a request that neighbors walk to nearby areas to help in sandbagging.

- Worsening weather conditions, with heavy rains turning to snow, will compound an already daunting task of protecting the city.

"What's scary right now is the weather," Walaker said, noting that the city's past flood fights generally occurred in favorable weather.

Conditions will become especially difficult after temperatures fall below freezing Tuesday and Wednesday, making sandbags rigid and resulting in a porous barrier.

"You can't place frozen sandbags," Walaker said.

Despite the mounting challenges, the mayor said he remains "cautiously optimistic" the area will be able to beat the flood, as it has in many years past.

He estimated earthen dikes were mostly complete late Sunday, with some nearly complete. The higher crest, however, means dikes now must be raised another foot or so.

Still, the mayor said contingency plans are being made for an evacuation, in the event that becomes necessary, and people should take precautions, including moving valuable possessions upstairs.

One fear, Walaker said, is that the Sheyenne and Wild Rice rivers will flood overland and merge with the Red River - a confluence of water several miles wide that would have to make its way through the narrow funnel formed by levees in Fargo and Moorhead.

"It's like an hour-glass that we're forcing all this water through," city manager Pat Zavoral said.

Officials emphasized, however, that the focus remains doing everything possible to beat the flood, and urged people to redouble their efforts.

City officials have been notified that at least 25 employers are releasing their employees to join the flood fight, along with Cass County Jail inmates, North Dakota State University football players, and public school students in grades 9 through 12.

Police are escorting trucks delivering sandbags, and people are urged to go to staging areas and take shuttle buses to the sandbag barricades.

"What we want to do is avoid any kind of chaos," Walaker said. "To win this battle, we need your help, even more so."

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