By Alicia Underlee Nelson
FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - Flood-weary residents of North Dakota bracing for a possible record inundation got their first touch of good news on Wednesday when officials said the swollen Red River would crest at lower than anticipated levels next week.
Residents in Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minnesota, have been filling sandbags ahead of the expected fourth major Red River flood in the past five years after unseasonably cold weather delayed the annual thaw.
But the river was still expected to peak at possibly its second-highest level on record, and flood preparations in the north-central United States follow major flooding on rivers in Illinois, Missouri, Indiana and Michigan caused by heavy rain.
The National Weather Service on Wednesday trimmed its forecast for the maximum crest on the Red River at Fargo to 40 feet, from 42 feet, which would be the second highest on record behind the 40.84 feet it reached in 2009.
The weather service expects the river to reach at least 38 feet at Fargo, which would be the fifth-highest crest at that location for the Red River, which flows into Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.
Fargo resident Shelby Murphy said the years of floods have made the preparations in the tree-lined, winding streets of the neighborhood she has lived in for seven years seem almost routine.
"We've done this for a few years, so I'm not that concerned," said Murphy, who lives in north Fargo. "But it would be nice if they came up with a long-term solution so we don't have to do this every year."
Mayor Dennis Walaker said in an emailed statement that Fargo has gained experience from the efforts fighting the major floods in 2009, 2010 and 2011.
"Previous floods are all learning tools," Walaker said. "We are getting good at this, but it also is time-consuming."
Fargo has added 14 miles of permanent levees since the 2009 flood and has been buying up homes in neighborhoods that are particularly prone to flooding. Eight city-owned homes were demolished last week to make way for a temporary levee.
The city began delivering sandbags by the truckload to neighborhoods on Tuesday and has restricted access on some major roads to local residents and crews building flood defenses.
The city uses sandbags filled by volunteers in Fargo and surrounding Cass County, plastic barriers filled with earth and clay levees as temporary measures to hold back floodwaters.
(Reporting by Alicia Underlee Nelson; Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)