By Alicia Underlee Nelson
FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - Fargo residents began filling 1 million sandbags on Wednesday as the North Dakota city braced for major flooding along the Red River for the fourth time in the past five years.
Preparing the sandbags is a volunteer effort in Fargo, which wants to reach its goal by April 13 to supplement the 750,000 it has in storage and give residents a safety net should the flooding be worse than expected, officials said.
The Red River has a 50 percent chance of hitting 38.1 feet at Fargo, its fifth highest level ever, and a 10 percent chance of reaching a record 40.9 feet, or about 11 feet above major flood stage, the National Weather Service said. If it reaches 40.9 feet, that would be the worst flood on record for Fargo.
"It's going to be a major flood regardless, it is just how high," said Greg Gust, a warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
Gust said the river level could start to rise sharply next week, as the snow melts.
Under the most gradual thawing process possible, the Red River is a virtual "lock" to reach 34 or 35 feet at Fargo, which forces some roads and bridges to be closed and the construction of temporary flood protections, Gust said.
The Red River begins in Wahpeton in southeast North Dakota and flows north through Fargo, Grand Forks and the Canadian city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, before flowing into Lake Winnipeg.
Most of the houses and businesses in Fargo have been pulled from vulnerable areas over the years, but rural residents, roads and farmsteads outside Fargo and other major cities will likely face conditions like those seen from 2009 to 2011, Gust said.
Oslo, Minnesota, which had a permanent levee constructed last year, will very likely be encircled by water as it has been in prior years, Gust said. At those times, Oslo becomes an island surrounded by floodwaters accessible only by boat or helicopter.
Parts of Interstate 29 in North Dakota just south and north of Fargo and north of Grand Forks, between Oslo and Drayton, North Dakota, may be vulnerable to flooding, he said.
Fargo opened what it calls "Sandbag Central" at a city garbage utility building on Wednesday, using machines and hundreds of volunteers who fill the bags, tie them off and stack them on shipping pallets to be moved to a storage facility.
"Ultimately, we're making sandbags to go into storage," said Terry Ludlum, who is coordinating the effort. "But we're only one spring rain storm away ... that's how fast it can change."
Fargo is building its defenses for a possible crest at 38 feet, with 2 feet (0.6 meter) to spare, and will be ready to add to that if needed, Ludlum said.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Mary Wisniewski and Peter Cooney)