FARGO - Floodwaters forced residents to flee to higher ground Thursday in Fargo, Moorhead and the surrounding area, as forecasters warned that the Red River could reach a record 43 feet by Saturday.
In south Fargo, police, firefighters and National Guard members evacuated the Riverview Place senior living center and 35 to 40 homes in the River Vili subdivision after finding cracks in an earthen dike.
In Moorhead, city officials released a statement just before 8 p.m. directing all residents living between Interstate 94 and 50th Avenue South and west of Eighth Street to evacuate the area immediately.
Minnesota law does not allow for mandatory evacuations, but Moorhead City Manager Mike Redlinger said residents were strongly urged to comply.
Redlinger said the city is confident most dikes in Moorhead have been built to 43 feet, but he said with the new crest prediction officials wanted to err on the side of caution by urging people to leave what is seen as a potentially vulnerable area.
Fargo officials vowed to do what is possible to raise dikes to 44 feet in south Fargo before the crest, expected on Saturday.
"We do not want to give up yet," Mayor Dennis Walaker said. "We want to go down swinging if we go down."
City leaders requested a 24-hour voluntary evacuation of residents living between primary levees and backup dikes. Officials will reassess the situation today, and the evacuation could become mandatory, City Administrator Pat Zavoral said.
Walaker thought the affected areas are home to about 1,000 residents.
The North Dakota National Guard is prepared to evacuate up to 20,000 residents in the first phase of a mandatory evacuation, said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk.
Also, MeritCare officials said that after consulting with local and state emergency officials, they were evacuating patients from all Fargo MeritCare hospitals. The number of patients being evacuated to regional hospitals was 180, with conditions from minor to critical.
Patients were being transferred by LifeFlight, ambulances and buses.
Fargo city leaders also banned travel on all major arterial roads throughout the city in an attempt to keep traffic, which clogged roads Thursday, to a minimum to allow trucks to deliver dirt and sandbags.
Officials said up to 1,400 Guard members will direct traffic at intersections and also help sandbag.
"This is a completely new process for the city of Fargo," Walaker said at a special Thursday night City Commission meeting.
Homeowners and volunteers had been scrambling for days to dike and sandbag the metro to protect to a river level of 41 feet.
Walaker was skeptical of the revised crest prediction and critical of the National Weather Service.
"We all had assurances as of 2 o'clock today, including the governor, that this worst-case scenario was going to be 41.2 feet," Walaker said.
"I know they (National Weather Service) want to be on top of the crest, but if they want to continue their credibility, they also have to deal with the ... you know, this is the fourth time," he said, referring to crest forecast changes.
Walaker questioned if the weather service, which underestimated crest levels before the 1997 flood that devastated Grand Forks, was putting out an overly pessimistic projection just to be sure: "Covering your ass is not a figure that we want right now."
City Commissioner Tim Mahoney said the city had completed dikes to a height of 43 feet, and officials feel they have the time and resources to protect areas of south Fargo to 44 feet.
Like Walaker, Mahoney was skeptical of the new crest prediction, saying he took an aerial tour of the metro area and saw frozen water in fields to the south.
"I'm not sure it factors in the cold weather," he said.
The crest in Fargo is expected to be between 41 and 42 feet by Saturday, "but could potentially be as high as 43 feet and continue for three to seven days," the weather service said in a statement late Thursday.
Record flows upstream of Fargo have produced "unprecedented conditions" on the Red River, according to the statement.
"When we wake up tomorrow (Friday), it's going to be ... a foot and a half higher than it is now," said Greg Gust, a weather service meteorologist. "By the time they are reading the paper tomorrow, it will be record-setting.
"It's a big freight train and we have to prepare for that."
The current record is 40.1 feet, set in 1897. The river passed the 1997 flood crest of 39.57 feet just after 7 p.m. Thursday.
Kristy Fremstad, who owns rental property next to the Red River on Seventh Avenue South, made a desperate plea to city leaders to raise that section of the dike, which she said only protects to 40.5 feet.
"We've been waiting and waiting and waiting," said Fremstad, a member of the Fargo Planning Commission.
"If we wait 'til tomorrow morning, it's too late," she said, her voice choked with emotion. City commissioners assured her work would begin overnight to raise the earthen dike.
The timing of the new crest forecast irked Mary Hoffman, whose Meadow Creek home had just been sandbagged to 43 feet, leaving her no freeboard if the upper limit of the forecast comes to fruition.
"If we'd known that earlier, you know, just a little earlier today, we could have thrown that many bags on while they were doing it. We had all the lines going. We could have just done it," she said.
Thursday evening, Hoffman fed volunteers in her garage as they waited for more sandbags to arrive.
"I said, 'Well, if you guys have to wait an hour, you might as well come and play pool, because my pool table might go under and never be used again,' " she said.
Mahoney said the city will no longer accept volunteers from south Fargo or bus them to sandbagging sites around the community. Instead, the North Dakota State University student body will man sandbagging operations at the Fargodome, which is within walking distance of the university. North Fargo residents also may volunteer, he said.
Neighbors of those raising dikes in south Fargo were asked to help them sandbag.
Even before the revised crest forecast came out, the flood fight took on a more serious tone as Fargo and Moorhead raised their primary dike protection to 43 feet and started building contingency dikes in some areas in case sandbag dikes fail. The morning briefing at Fargo City Hall, kept light with jokes in previous days, began with a prayer.
"We need all the help we can get," Walaker said.
Crews quickly erected a 1,600-foot-long, steel and vinyl portable dam to add 5 feet to Fargo's Island Park permanent levee, which protects to 41.3 feet and guards hundreds of south-side homes.
A combination of road closures, trucks hauling dirt and sandbags, volunteers driving to sandbag sites and people just trying to get around brought traffic to a crawl on many metro thoroughfares.
Fargo also released its contingency plan for evacuations, which divides the city into seven sections.
Residents will be alerted by the CodeRED Emergency Notification System and Emergency Broadcast System if there's a breach in the primary dike system. The plan directs them to go to higher ground in the center of the city, but doesn't give specific directions how to get there because officials don't know what roads will or won't be flooded, Police Chief Keith Ternes said.
"It's almost impossible for us to give you specific evacuation routes at this point," he said.
In Moorhead, residents on the far south side were told to seek shelter with family or friends outside of the flood zone.
Kevin Roseland and his wife, Karin, who live on Rivershore drive in south Moorhead, packed up belongings and their vehicles Thursday evening and headed for their daughter's home in a part of Moorhead outside the evacuation zone.
Kevin Roseland said when they were leaving, they noticed a number of neighbors doing the same thing, though others talked about staying to continue the flood fight.
Thursday's evacuation call also applied to Oakport Township north of Moorhead, which was quickly becoming an island Thursday night.
Early Thursday, township board chairman Greg Anderson said it would be "a miracle" if only 50 homes were lost.
By nightfall, he said, "I wouldn't even want to make a guess now. We just don't know."
A Red Cross public shelter was set up at Moorhead High School, 2300 4th Ave. S.. People should go to door No. 8 on the north side of the school. Residents were told to bring their identification and a seven to 10 day supply of medications.
Parents with infants were told to make sure they took baby supplies.
Once evacuees reach a safe location, they are being asked to call (218) 477-4747 to register their home's address and temporary location, so emergency personnel and family and friends will know how to reach them. Anyone with questions about Moorhead's evacuation should call the same number.
Families needing special assistance should contact the Clay County Emergency Operations Center at (218) 299-7768.
Pets will not be accepted at the Red Cross shelter in Moorhead.
Animal shelter might be available at the Doggy Depot, 3224 8th St. S., Moorhead, (218) 236-DOGS; and the Mutt Hut, 1214 Main Avenue, Moorhead, (218) 236-9935.
Pet shelter space is limited, so residents are being told they should try to make accommodations with family or friends outside of the flood zone.
Clay County Sheriff Bill Bergquist said anyone planning to leave Moorhead should keep in mind that the main roads available are Highway 10 and Interstate 94.
Volunteer sandbaggers working in the area affected by the evacuation were told to leave the area late Thursday.
Recent snows - which deposited almost an inch of moisture in Fargo-Moorhead - and the lingering cold air mean the Red River will remain at a prolonged high plateau, with another crest possible next week.
"Definitely the potential does exist for a second crest as we move into April," said Dave Kellenbenz, senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks.
A second crest might not be as high as the initial crest, expected to arrive Saturday at 41 to 43 feet in the metro area.
The Red River appeared to have crested south of Fargo at Hickson, N.D., at slightly over 39 feet. It usually takes a day for a crest to travel downstream to Fargo from Hickson.
The Red has been climbing rapidly, at the rate of about three feet a day for the past two days, but the rise now appears to have slowed, Kellenbenz said.
Forecasters continue to keep a close eye on another storm system that appears to be heading toward the north-central Plains next week, with a chance of more snow Monday.
"It's something we'll have to keep a very close watch on," Kellenbenz said, adding, "This does look like another slow mover."
A high-pressure system to the east has been blocking the exit of a low-pressure system over the Red River Valley, although the pressure now is rising and will bring winds Friday and Friday evening. Temperatures will remain 10 to 15 degrees below normal through Saturday, with daytime highs in the mid-30s expected Sunday and Monday.
Also on Thursday:
* In neighborhoods south of Fargo, residents were rescued by boat and helicopter, more than 100 by the rough count of Cass County Sheriff Paul Laney.
County deputies and the U.S. Coast Guard spent the day pulling people out of the areas between 70th and 76th avenues south, then moved recovery efforts north to the Briarwood Place just south of 64th Avenue South in the early evening, Laney said.
"When those new crest numbers came out, everybody wanted out," he said.
* Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral said unless a dike is gushing water, people should call the city engineer's office at (701) 241-1545 to report a leak so city crews can check it out.
* City officials also dispelled rumors that drinking water in Fargo and Moorhead is unsafe to consume because of an earthy taste and odor.
Fargo water treatment plant operator Mark Peterson said the smell and taste is caused by geosmin, a byproduct of decaying vegetation that's detectable in parts per trillion. The cities deal with it every spring, but it's worse this year. Still, all other tests are normal and the water is safe to drink, he said.
"It's just such a strong taste and odor, it's going to be tough to get rid of, I think, until the rivers go back to normal," he said.
* Bread and bottled water flew off grocery store shelves, as residents braced for the worst and kept nourishment flowing to volunteer sandbaggers.
"We're getting a lot of calls where people want to donate" food and water to sandbagging sites, Fargo Cash Wise manager Tim Rhode said.
* Sen. Kent Conrad announced he would return to North Dakota on Friday to inspect flood conditions in the Red River Valley and Bismarck areas with federal officials including Federal Emergency Management Agency Acting Administrator Nancy Ward and Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh, commander of the Mississippi Valley Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
* Trollwood Performing Arts School cancelled its plans to sandbag around the main building of its new Moorhead facility at 801 50th Ave. S. on Thursday morning after a truck got stuck trying to deliver sand. The outdoor auditorium was built safe to 40 feet, but 2 feet of sandbags were added earlier this week. The main building, Marcil Commons, stands at 42 feet. The load of sand was to build a 2-foot-high ring around the building.
* The North Dakota Department of Human Services' Developmental Center in Grafton prepared to shelter about 75 clients and 25 caregivers being evacuated from Friendship Inc. facilities in Fargo.