Bone-chilling temperatures were slowing the rise of the record-high Red River today, while weary volunteers were left with little to do but watch, wait, and wonder if all their hard work had been enough to save the US city of Fargo from major flooding.
"Now it's time to stand and defend," said Tim Mahoney, a city commissioner in Fargo, North Dakota.
Millions of sandbags were in place, with 1,700 National Guard troops on patrol monitoring dikes with the help of volunteers alert for any cracks in the defenses. An intense effort that brought out students and out-of-towners to help fill sandbags and build up dikes wound down Friday evening.
Temperatures were in the single digits overnight, preventing snow from melting that would fuel the river's rise. The Red rose less than a foot yesterday, compared to 2 1/2 feet on Thursday, and forecasters last night predicted that the river would crest Sunday afternoon instead of today.
The National Weather Service targeted the crest near 42 feet, but said it was still possible the river could rise to 43 feet - the same level at which the levees are built to protect the city and nearly 3 feet higher than the record set 112 years ago.
Even after the floodwaters crest, the water may not begin receding before Wednesday, creating a lingering risk of a catastrophic failure in levees put together mostly by volunteers.
"There are a lot of variables in this whole process, a lot variables," said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.
Walaker talked by telephone yesterday with President Barack Obama, who told the state's leaders they could count on help - something the city has received plenty of already.
National Guard troops fanned out in the bitter cold to inspect floodwalls for leaks and weak spots, and residents piled sandbags on top of 12 miles of snow-covered dikes. The frigid weather froze the bags solid, turning them into what residents hoped would be a watertight barrier.
Hundreds more Guard troops poured in from around the state and neighboring South Dakota, along with scores of American Red Cross workers from as far away as Modesto, California. Homeowners, students and small armies of other volunteers filled sandbags in temperatures that barely rose into the double digits.
"It's to the point now where I think we've done everything we can," said resident Dave Davis, whose neighborhood was filled with backhoes and tractors building an earthen levee. "The only thing now is divine intervention."
The river surged had risen early this morning to 40.81 feet - more than 22 feet above flood stage and beyond the previous high-water mark of 40.1 feet in 1897.
In a flood-stricken small town north of Fargo, a fire burned down a house that was so engulfed by the flood that firefighters couldn't get within 200 feet. Giant flames ate a huge gash through the roof as black smoke soared into the sky, all while a line of sandbags surrounded the base of the home. More than 100 residents in the town, Oakport Township, had to be rescued by boat in the town.
In another tiny town near Fargo, Lowell Bottrell paddled through floodwaters with a canoe to ferry sandbags between homes, encountering vicious currents, giant ice floes and water that nearly topped some signs. To keep warm, he wore a "Go Bison" stocking cap, paying tribute to Fargo's beloved sports team at North Dakota State University.
Walaker cautiously expressed hope that the river would stay below 43 feet - the limit of the reinforced dikes. The mayor said there was not enough time to build the levees any higher.
Fargo escaped devastation from flooding in 1997, when Grand Forks was ravaged by a historic flood 70 miles to the north. This year, the river has been swollen by heavier-than-average winter snows, combined with an early freeze last fall that locked a lot of moisture into the soil. The threat has been made worse by spring rains.
"I think the river is mad that she lost the last time," said engineer Mike Buerkley, managing a smile through his dark stubble as he tossed sandbags onto his pickup truck after working 29 straight hours.
Some 1,700 National Guard troops helped reinforce the dikes and conduct patrols for leaks. Guard member Shawna Cale, 25, worked through the night on a dike, handing up sandbags that were 30 to 40 pounds and frozen-solid.
"It's like throwing a frozen turkey," said sister-in-law Tawny Cale, who came with her husband to help with the sandbags and then to help Shawna move her valuables as she evacuated.
Authorities in Fargo and across the river in Moorhead — a city of about 30,000 people — expanded evacuations Friday across several blocks. About 2,600 households in Moorhead — about a third of the city — were asked to leave their homes. Hundreds more in Fargo were asked to evacuate.
The effort to fortify flood-prone neighborhoods took place around Fargo, with officials building a contingency dike system as a second line of defense should the river breach riverside neighborhoods. But some residents were left between the two sets of dikes.
"There are people who are angry about being on the wrong side of the dike," said Mahoney, whose home is in one of the "wrong-side" neighborhoods.
"We have a 500-year flood that we're combatting, and we think we're doing as well as we can," Mahoney said.
Residents in another of those neighborhoods placed pumps in their yards in hopes of keeping water out of their homes.
Tina Kraft took everything of value or importance in her basement and first floor and moved it upstairs.
"We've prepared for it as best we can," she said. "We really just have to be ready for our house to be flooded."