FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - North Dakota and Minnesota residents braced on Friday as the Red River edged toward a near-record crest in the Fargo-Moorhead area, with rain showers expected as the river peaks over the weekend.
Fargo completed sandbagging operations and finalized work on dikes and other flood controls and planned to distribute 235,000 more sandbags to various neighborhoods as insurance if the Red River rises higher than expected.
"Everybody needs to be vigilant because this is not a walk in the park. It's the third-highest crest in history," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker told reporters.
The Red River reached 38 feet on Friday morning at Fargo. The National Weather Service projected a crest at about 39.5 feet Saturday night or Sunday morning, which would be the third highest ever.
Fargo has about 52 miles of protection in place along the river, said city officials, who planned to add enough sandbags and other defenses to withstand a 42-foot crest.
The projected 39.5-foot crest at Fargo would rank third behind the record 40.84-foot crest in 2009 and the 39.72-foot crest in 1997.
The National Weather Service predicted rain showers for Saturday night and Sunday in the Fargo area.
The primary crest was expected to reach Fargo possibly ahead of the runoff from weekend showers, and "significant precipitation" at the crest would likely lead to high water levels for a longer period, the weather service said.
"We are expecting some precipitation this weekend that may prolong the crest into next week," the Weather Service's Brad Bramer said, adding that precipitation amounts and areas were still uncertain.
Authorities reported three flood-related deaths in the Fargo-Moorhead area this week.
A Minnesota man collapsed Wednesday while placing sandbags at a farm near Moorhead. On Friday, a search of a flooded river near Fargo uncovered the bodies of two men who had failed to return from a hunting trip on Thursday.
Temporary clay dikes and sandbag levees patrolled by the National Guard and volunteers were placed along the Red River and tributaries to protect roads, utility plants and police and fire stations.
Thousands could be forced from their homes and farms in North Dakota and Minnesota if the defenses are breached as in 2009. Authorities said flood fighters have learned from past experience and that defenses are better prepared this year.
In Grand Forks, the weather service projected a nearly 51-foot crest, which would be the highest since 1997. But officials expect minimal impact thanks to added flood walls.
The flooding was also expected to have a major impact on the amount of land farmers will be able to plant this spring.
North Dakota has been the leading wheat-producing state the past two years and accounts for 16 percent of U.S. production. About one-fifth of the state's wheat crop is at risk from flooding of the Red River and its tributaries.
(Reporting by Richard Mattern, writing by David Bailey, editing by Chris Michaud)