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North Dakota disaster zone

Declaration clears way for aid; Fargo braces for flood crest Saturday

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GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Barack Obama helped North Dakota in a big way on Wednesday.

While the U.S. president didn't heft a sandbag or even visit the state, he declared North Dakota a federal disaster zone due to severe flooding of the Red River.

The president's designation is welcome because it commits the federal government to provide 75 per cent of flooding cleanup and recovery costs to local governments.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency, overseen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, has been given responsibility for flood-relief efforts.

The river has been overflowing its banks in some areas following several storms that began hitting the area on March 13. The banks of the Red River in some parts of Fargo were reportedly past the major flood stage at nearly 10 metres by late Tuesday.

Wednesday the National Weather Service said Grand Forks is expected to crest between 50 and 53 feet, after rain and snow in the last two days dumped one-half to one inch of precipitation in the region. Two days ago, the range was 48.5 to 52.5 feet.

"The path of the storm was right through the heart of the valley," said Dan Riddle, a weather service senior meteorologist.

In Fargo, local basketball champions North Dakota State Bisons are leading the way to help save their town. The team, which excited Fargo with their first NCAA tournament appearance last week, has volunteered to help fill a staggering two million sandbags to protect the city amid new projections that the river will crest at levels never before seen by the weekend.

The basketball players join thousands of people from all walks of life, many with vivid memories of the disastrous 1997 floods, who are racing around the clock to keep the city dry.

With school cancelled, students are stacking sandbags, while others are taking time off from work to help.

Working right alongside them, shovel for shovel, are coach Saul Phillips and the Bison basketball team.

Phillips began calling his players during the weekend when it became apparent how bad things might get. He hoped to have the entire team working together, filling and stacking the sandbags.

His players beat him to it. Half of them were already on the front lines.

"You go from a terrific diversion like the NCAA tournament to everybody literally walking down streets asking if anyone needs help," Phillips said. "It's a really weird dynamic.

"I don't think you could find two more opposite deals."

The team has worked together the last few days, going house to house near the river to offer help. Like all volunteers, they're braving freezing temperatures and muddy lawns that quickly give way to size-17 boots.

About 1,350 guardsmen from the North Dakota Army and Air National Guard have also enlisted to help fight overflowing banks on the Red River in the eastern region and the Missouri River that runs southward in the state.

Col. Dale Adams of the state's National Guard said Wednesday that his members are sandbagging, building dikes and assisting emergency services with getting evacuated residents to safety.

"We're right in the middle of it. Some rivers have crested but others like the Red River in Fargo won't until Saturday," he said.

He predicts the flooding will be more widespread in North Dakota than it was during the last major flooding disaster in 1997, which devastated both the state and Manitoba, forced the evacuation of thousands of residents in both regions and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

"We've prepared for this particular situation since the fall so it doesn't come as any surprise with the volume of snowfall we've had in the state this winter," Adams said. "And looking back at lessons learned from 1997, the way it is turning out, this flood is more severe than 1997."

On Wednesday, all trials scheduled at the municipal court in Fargo were cancelled through to April 2 to allow more police officers to be on hand to deal with the emergency.


-- The Associated Press, Grand Forks Herald


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2009 A4

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