FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - Hundreds of residents of North Dakota and Minnesota evacuated their homes on Friday as the Red River rose to its highest level in 112 years in the key wheat and sugar beet growing region.
The Red River topped its record of 40.1 feet set in 1897 in Fargo on Friday morning and was at 40.73 feet as of 4:15 p.m. CDT. The river is expected to crest by Saturday at 42 feet.
“In terms of natural disasters that can strike this country, floods are just the worst, at least in my experience,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Reuters in an interview in Washington.
“It is a horrible human tragedy to watch this,” he said. “I think the folks in North Dakota and Minnesota have done an extraordinary job in trying to protect against this.”
The Red River flows north from southeast North Dakota into Canada’s Lake Winnipeg, forming the border between North Dakota and Minnesota. Fargo-Moorhead, with a metropolitan population of 175,000, is the largest city in the U.S. side of the valley.
The river is located in an ancient lakebed and because it flows north, it is especially prone to flooding as water freezes as it moves north into Canada. Its banks are not very high and flood waters can spread out huge distances over the flat landscape.
Water is seeping through the ground in at least six locations along dikes on both sides of the Red River, said Frank Worley, spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That’s normal and remains under control, he said.
Worley said the crack in the dike was never leaking, correcting a statement he made Friday morning.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a contingency dike behind the one with a crack, Worley added.
Hundreds of people have been forced to evacuate two areas of Fargo, a city spokesman said. Emergency officials have evacuated at least 100 homes near the dike crack and moved hundreds living near the seepage locations, including a seniors residence.
In Moorhead, Fargo’s twin city in Minnesota, state law doesn’t allow mandatory evacuations, but the city advised 2,663 households to leave, said Becky Jahnke, executive secretary for the mayor and city manager. Most of those who left are staying with friends and relatives, she said.
The closure of some Fargo streets and large numbers of residents leaving the city has created traffic tie-ups and delayed emergency responders, said Sgt. Ross Renner of Fargo Police Department. But there’s no sense of panic, he said.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the dikes, which are mostly 43 feet high, just a foot higher than the forecast crest, will be sufficient.
“I‘m confident,” he said.
But the unprecedented crest is adding a feverish tone to sandbagging efforts. Nick Sinner, 52, has spent most of this week with his family piling sandbags in a neighbor’s yard, which backs onto the river. His own home across the street relies on it.
“We’re hoping against hope,” he said. “If the dike holds and the crest doesn’t go over 43 feet, I‘m OK.”
Sinner said he’s amazed by the thousands of volunteers pouring into the region to help, despite light snow and temperatures of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 Celsius) with the windchill.
“We’re never at a loss for volunteers. People from a long distance away have come to lend a hand. That’s the most inspirational (thing). And they’re out here working with a smile on their face.”
The Red River Valley produces a large percentage of the U.S. spring wheat crop and more than half of the sugar beets grown in the United States.
The flooding could reduce spring wheat plantings by up to 500,000 acres and result in farmers planting more soybeans once flood waters recede. Sugar beet plantings will not be affected, traders said.
The Red River crest has passed through Wahpeton, North Dakota, without damaging or disrupting operations at a sugar processing facility run by Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative, cooperative spokeswoman Susan Johnson said in an email.
Five other sugar plants in the Red River Valley, operated by American Crystal Sugar Company, are running as normal, said spokesman Jeff Schweitzer. The biggest concern is getting enough workers into its Moorhead factory, he said.
“Obviously, we’ve got situations where employees can’t get to work because they’re protecting their personal property,” he said.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Russell Blinch in Washington and Rich Mattern in Fargo, North Dakota; Editing by Marguerita Choy