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'In uncharted territory': Fargo-Moorhead braces for record flood; rural evacuations ongoing

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FARGO - A flood fight that was supposed to be 95 percent buttoned up in Fargo-Moorhead Wednesday morning morphed into a 100 percent battle by 1 p.m., as the forecast for the Red River crest was bumped up another foot to 41 feet.

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Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the new crest, expected Saturday, put the city "in uncharted territory."

Fargo officials pleaded for another 1,000 to 1,200 volunteers to make 1 million sandbags in the next two days and to man sandbag lines up and down a 12-mile stretch of the Red River and another three miles on the south side.

Moorhead and Oakport Township also put out a call for volunteers to make and pile sandbags. Moorhead officials said they wanted all dikes built to 43 feet in 24 hours.

That, of course, must take place in some of the worst possible weather, with more than 5 inches of snow on the ground Wednesday morning and several more inches falling through the day. Officials said precautions must be taken to keep sandbags from freezing as temperatures dip in order to build effective dikes.

Officials from both Fargo and Moorhead approved emergency evacuation plans Wednesday.

Fargo's evacuation plan splits the city into seven areas for planning purposes, police officials said.

The Fargo City Commission also voted 5-0 to build contingency dikes in several areas, including the northside Oak Grove area, and several southside neighborhoods, including Rose Creek, Meadow Creek, Copperfield Court, Timberline, Southwood Drive (to protect the city's water plant) and along the Red River in the Harwood Groves area. Plans for more protection for City Hall aren't set, City Engineer Mark Bittner said.

South of the metro, the flood battle turned desperate, as Cass County, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Coast Guard officials used airboats to evacuate 20 people from 11 homes, Sheriff Paul Laney said.

"We've gone into full-blown rescue mode," Laney said of the rescues in the Heritage Hills and Oxbow, N.D., areas.

In North Dakota's Richland County, a Coast Guard helicopter lifted a family to safety, officials said. And three families have been evacuated by boat in Clay County, Sheriff Bill Bergquist said.

In Fargo, volunteers are being asked for two more 500,000-sandbag filling days. At least 300,000 more bags are needed to raise dikes another foot citywide, officials said.

"I don't care how old you are, you've never seen this in the (Red River) Valley," Walaker said of the record-setting floodwaters.

A testament to the severity of the flooding, the Minnesota and North Dakota congressional delegations met with President Barack Obama Wednesday to update him on the situation. Obama pledged the federal government would support the area through the flood fight and cleanup.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty also asked the president for a federal disaster declaration for the state's northwest counties.

Moorhead City Manager Mike Redlinger said an area of emphasis will be the nearly 3-mile long dike system from Horn Park to the area of 40th Avenue South. He said an effort is also under way to protect the new Trollwood Performing Arts school site near 50th Avenue South.

Historically high water in the Wild Rice River, overland flooding, and a combination of rain and 5 to 8 inches of snow overnight Tuesday, helped raise the flood forecast.

Walaker and Deputy Mayor Tim Mahoney also said that even though Tuesday's crest of the Red in Wahpeton, N.D., was not a record, the city's diversion may have masked the true volume of water heading to Fargo-Moorhead.

Mahoney and Walaker said the city is not abandoning families on the waterward side of contingency dikes, but they urged homeowners to get valuables out of basements.

Mahoney said volunteers should go to the Fargodome or Fargo's Assembly of God Church to be transported to the areas where they are needed. The Hope Lutheran Church volunteer shuttle site in south Fargo also was reopened, the city announced.

Mahoney pleaded with people to not drive to the work zones, because the congestion would hurt flood-fighting efforts.

Before noon Wednesday, the National Weather Service had predicted a crest on the Red River in the range of 39 to 41 feet this weekend, with 40 feet the anticipated crest.

The NWS also raised the crest prediction for Grand Forks, N.D., to between 50 and 53 feet. Two days ago, the range was 48.5 to 52.5 feet.

Cass County is delivering sandbags to Forest River and Chrisan Way for those homeowners who think they can still beat the flood. Trucks are delivering the sand today and offering up the sandbags on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Laney said Cass County residents who need to be rescued should pack light, gather family members and leave when boats arrive.

"We've had people ask us to come back in an hour," Laney said. "I don't know if we can come back in an hour."

He warned people should not wait until nightfall, as rescue operations become life-or-death situations in the dark.

People who need help evacuating should call the county emergency operations center at (701) 241-5793, officials said.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter at Fargo South Campus II at 1305 9th Ave. S., Cass County Emergency Management announced.

The weather service forecast calls for a high Thursday of 23 degrees, with light snow or flurries, and an overnight low of 11.

Friday's forecast calls for mostly sunny skies, with a high of 27 and a low of 11.

Saturday's forecast calls for partly cloudy skies, a high of 32 and a low of 14 degrees.

Forum reporters Dave Olson, Jon Knutson and Mike Nowatzki contributed to this report.

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