Snow Piles Up in North Dakota, Keeping Flood-Ready Fargo Residents on Edge

Strengthening wind blew heavy, wet snow around the city Tuesday, adding to the strain on residents' spirits and on the patchwork system of sandbag levees protecting them from the bloated Red River.

However, there were no reports of problems with leaks or with wind-driven waves battering the dikes Tuesday morning.

The blizzard that walloped North Dakota and other parts of the northern Plains on Monday into Tuesday morning brought almost six inches of snow and powerful, gusting wind that threatened to whip up waves that would pound the levees.

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"I don't like it," Dick Schafer said Monday as he scraped ice off his driveway while heavy, wet snowflakes fell. "They say it's not going to affect the level of the river, but it just makes everything miserable. People here are expecting anything now."

The wind blew at 15 to 25 mph before dawn, with some higher gusts, said National Weather Service forecaster Mike Hudson. The wind was expected to peak at up to 35 mph around midday, and an additional 7 to 14 inches of snow was possible.

"I have not heard anything about any kind of impact," Hudson said. "The winds will get a little stronger today, so that is a factor."

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Frank Worley said waves were only about 1 to 2 inches high Tuesday morning.

"Wave action right now looks pretty small," Worley said. "The wind is blowing, the snow is blowing, but we're not looking at 1-foot waves or anything like that. ... The good news is (the river) has gone down, so the effect will be minimized."

Engineers had scrambled Monday to shore up the dikes to make sure they could withstand waves, with National Guard members placing sheets of plastic over the levees to stem erosion. Worley said everything appeared to be holding Tuesday.

As the heavy, wet snow fell during the night, trucks with snow plows rolled through Fargo.

"We're just trying to keep things open. It's kind of a race against time," said Ryan Such, operating a pickup truck equipped with a plow. He had been out since 2 a.m. and, like some co-workers, his home was threatened by the river's high water. He lives next to dikes in south Fargo.

"I lived in North Dakota all my life," said Such, 26. "After a while, you just get tired of it."

The river had fallen to 38.16 feet Tuesday morning, more than 2 feet below its peak but still over 20 feet above flood stage. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls below 36 or 37 feet. The weather service projected 37 feet by Friday morning, but warned that the river may have a second dangerous crest in mid-April.

That second crest is what the city was most worried about, said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.

"We would like to have this winter end as soon as possible," he said.

The dropping water level prompted officials in Fargo's cross-river neighbor — Moorhead, Minn. — to lift evacuations in two parts of the city, but a voluntary evacuation remained for part of south Moorhead, where at least five houses were flooded.

Cold weather has been helping the flooding situation because ice and snow that normally would be melting and feeding the river have stayed frozen. But forecasters said the latest snowfall would contribute to an increase in river levels down the road, and Tuesday morning's temperature in Fargo was around 30 degrees.

"The cold weather we've had really has made a difference in holding things back," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, commander of the North Dakota National Guard. "But if you fly over the Red River Valley right now, you see an awful lot of snow yet to come, and an awful lot of ice."

Corps engineer Tim Bertschi said when water pressure gets strong enough, the sandbags can begin to shift, a weakness that surging water will quickly exploit.

Another potential problem is that floating ice chunks can hit a levee, speeding erosion or punching holes in the plastic sheeting. Once water gets in, a levee becomes much more susceptible to failure.

"Anything you are going to build, you've got to suspect it's going to fail at one time or another," said Bill Buckler, an associate professor of geography at Youngstown State University in Ohio.

Officials in Fargo and Moorhead say they have limited the damage to a small number of homes, but they have had to rescue about 300 people by boat, and several outlying rural areas have seen significant flooding.

Authorities also warned people to stay away from the dangerous river. Late Monday, a man was arrested for driving a snowmobile on a dike.

Flooding statewide was blamed for two deaths in what health officials said were apparent heart attacks brought on by exertion.

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