Red River Rises As Thousands Flee Bone-chilling temperatures have given Fargo, N.D., a much-welcome reprieve from potentially devastating floods. But warming temperates expected Saturday could create snow melt that would contribute to flooding.
NPR logo

Red River Rises As Thousands Flee

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Red River Rises As Thousands Flee

Red River Rises As Thousands Flee

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The Red River continues to rise this morning and thousands of people in and around Fargo, North Dakota have been evacuated from their homes. The river's already topped the record level of just over 40 feet set in 1897, and is not expected to crest now until Sunday.

Where crews and volunteers aren't just fighting the rising water they're also battling bitter cold, as temperatures overnight plummeted to near zero. From Fargo, NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: I'm standing on one of the bridges over the Red River between Fargo and Moorhead, Minnesota. This bridge, like most of the bridges between the two towns, is closed because the river has risen so high, water is passing just inches below the deck I'm standing on. The Red River has reached a level never before recorded in history and it's still rising.

But sandbagging efforts and work to shore up the dikes and levees have pretty much stopped as the people of Fargo and Moorhead wait to see how much higher the river goes and whether those levees will hold.

Mr. PAT ZAVORAL (City Administrator): We've got all our dikes in place.

SCHAPER: Pat Zavoral is Fargo's city administrator.

Mr. ZAVORAL: We went from thinking we needed a million sandbags to three million sandbags and building 28 miles of river dikes with sandbags, dirt, and some baskets that they've used in Iraq to protect the soldiers, and they seem to be working out.

SCHAPER: Zavoral says 15,000 to 25,000 volunteers have been coming out every day this week to help fill and place sandbags. Now the operation moves into what Zavoral calls a watch-and-pump vigil.

Mr. ZAVORAL: We have to watch the dikes, and as we get some leakage, we have to pump the water back into the rivers.

SCHAPER: National Guard troops are patrolling the dikes to look for leaks. One of the biggest problems is the sub-freezing temperatures that dropped to near zero overnight. Tim Mahoney is a Fargo city commissioner.

Mr. TIM MAHONEY (City Commissioner): People are working on the Fourth Street dike last night and they basically were working with frozen turkeys last night. The sandbags were so frozen hard, they'd have to throw them on the ground several times.

SCHAPER: And these frozen sandbag dikes are more prone to leaks, leading to concerns about how well they'll hold up in the next week. The river is now not projected to crest until Sunday and will stay at these record-high levels for several days, maybe even a week. Those being evacuated from their homes can expect to be out for 10 days or more, leading many to agonize over whether to stay and try to protect their homes or go to higher ground.

Ria Fowl(ph) lives in a lower-lying neighborhood in Morehead, Minnesota.

Ms. RIA FOWL: You know, right now I have such mixed feelings on what I do. I guess if it's mandatory, I think I'd go; my husband may stay.

SCHAPER: Authorities in both states say residents will not be arrested if they ignore mandatory evacuation orders. About a third of Morehead's 32,000 residents have been asked to leave; thousands more have left homes in Fargo. The Red Cross has set up shelters in the area and will provide food, clothing, showers and a warm place to sleep for as long as evacuees need it.

But many in Morehead and Fargo say they won't leave their homes until they see the water coming in, and they continue to fill and stack sandbags.

Ms. ERIN THIELE(ph): It's intense. It's intense. I'm not even sure what day it is.

SCHAPER: Erin Thiele and her husband live in what some are calling no man's land. The city of Fargo put up a contingency dike, a second dike further away from the main dike along the river's edge, to protect the city's water treatment plant and a larger neighborhood should the main dike fail. The Thieles live in the neighborhood that is between the two dikes.

Ms. THIELE: We've just been hauling in sandbags and putting it around our windows and trying everything we can to make sure our house is all right.

SCHAPER: Now the Thieles and everyone else in and around Fargo wait and watch to see if they'll win this fight against the rising Red River.

David Schaper, NPR News in Fargo.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.