Fargo Evacuated As Waters Rise

Officials start to move nursing home residents to higher ground as Fargo, N.D., prepares for what could be record flooding. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says while some neighborhoods have had to be evacuated, many residents from unaffected areas are joining the fight.

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In Fargo North Dakota this morning, rising flood waters broke a record that has stood for more than a century. The Red River is now a few inches above the 40 feet crest of 1897 and the water is still rising. Authorities stepped up evacuations today as sandbagging continued at a feverish pace. FEMA's acting administrator Nancy Ward was also touring the area today and promised federal support to flood relief efforts. NPR's David Schaper reports from Fargo.

(Soundbite of crews)

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing at the edge of the Red River in downtown Fargo where crews are working feverishly to try to build up and re-enforce the levee and dike system here. On the other side of the dike from where I'm standing the river is already at about 41 feet or maybe higher. They're trying to build up the levee system to 44 feet. There is a line of dump trucks bringing loads of dirt up to the levee where a backhoe and bulldozer push it up and pile it up on top.

Mr. GRANT INSEL(ph): Very busy that's for sure.

SCHAPER: Grant Insel works for the contractor that is building up the levee.

Mr. INSEL: Dumping lots of truck and building the dike up, so the water don't come.

SCHAPER: Where are they getting the dirt, do you know?

Mr. INSEL: Big hole by the airport, looks like the Grand Canyon.

(Soundbite of crews and machines)

SCHAPER: Sandbagging efforts continue, too. Volunteers have filled millions of sandbags all week out of the Fargo dome. Volunteer Kyle Jameson(ph) of Fargo describes the assembly line process.

Mr. KYLE JAMESON: Everyone does what needs to be done. There's people filling the bags, people rolling the tops of the bags, people loading them on pallets and - it's an operation so to speak.

SCHAPER: In his third day of volunteering Jameson says he's feeling the pain.

Mr. JAMESON: All over. Everything aches but I can complain when it's all done.

SCHAPER: City and state officials praise that can-do attitude of the people of Fargo and its neighboring communities. Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker says while some neighborhoods have had to be evacuated many residents from other unaffected areas are joining in the fight.

Mr. DENNIS WALAKER (Mayor, Fargo): We're going down swinging. I mean it's as simple as that. We will do everything we can and if we lose this thing, its not going to be because - by lack of effort.

SCHAPER: Walaker says that the water isn't rising quite as fast today as it was yesterday but it's already higher than at anytime on record and won't crest until mid-day tomorrow.

Mr. WALAKER: None of us, no matter how old we are, have ever seen this river at these heights. That's what this is all about, this is uncharted territory.

SCHAPER: Walaker says as his city fights the rising river other elements from mother nature are coming into play. Cold temperatures in the teens have slowed the water but Walaker says the cold is making it more difficult to pile up sandbags.

Mr. WALAKER: Well they freeze. What I mean they basically turn into rocks.

SCHAPER: Walaker says it's like stacking frozen turkeys.

Mr. WALAKER: As far as making a good sandbag dike, frozen sandbags do not do a very good job.

SCHAPER: One of Fargo's hospitals had to be evacuated overnight. One hundred and eighty patients sent to other facilities as far away as Minneapolis, Rochester, and Sioux Falls. Across the widening Red River from Fargo in Morehead, Minnesota, hundreds of residents there have been evacuated from their homes as the flood waters rise, among them is Angela Lockin(ph).

Ms. ANGELA LOCKIN: I was sandbagging over my Horn Park(ph) and they told us to stop sandbagging because the levels were raised and pretty much what we were doing wasn't going to probably work. So we all hung our heads, all of us that live around here and walked home.

SCHAPER: Lockin says she then packed up as much as she could and left her home. The Red Cross has setup shelters at schools and churches and plans to keep them open well after the Red River crests tomorrow.

David Schaper, NPR News, Fargo.

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