FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - Residents of the flood-swollen Red River Valley got a break from the weather on Saturday as cold temperatures prevented more winter thaw from swamping the city and flood barriers held, officials said.
Hundreds of National Guard troops, local residents and volunteers continued to reinforce and raise sandbagged barriers and floodwalls. They had been bracing for a record crest on Saturday but awoke instead to a slightly lower water level.
"The river is cresting. That's good news," said Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker. "Everyone thinks it's over. It's not over until the river gets down maybe 6, 7 feet."
Cold weather froze flood waters in the fields around this metropolitan area of 175,000 people, keeping spring melt from adding to the flooded river, said Mike Hudson, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fargo.
The Red River Valley is an important farming region for spring wheat and sugar beets, although spring planting is still weeks away. Wet soil could delay some seeding, which for wheat and corn can go well into May. U.S. wheat prices fell on Friday as snowstorms in the Plains aided needed soil moisture.
The river's level has continued to drop since midnight CDT and was 40.61 feet at 1:15 p.m. CDT on Saturday, down from 40.82 feet. The temperature was 21 degrees F (minus 6 Celsius) just before 1 p.m.
The river had been forecast to crest on Saturday at 42 feet before freezing temperatures caused the weather service to revise its forecast. The river should stay at its current level or drop over the next three to four days, the NWS said.
Hudson said ice jams could cause the river to rise or fall half a foot to one foot in the next 24 hours, but the freezing temperature looked set to keep run-off stalled for a while.
The cold "has more than likely been a big blessing to us," Hudson said. "Seeing the levels where they are certainly has been an uplifting thing for the people of Fargo-Moorhead."
One-third of Moorhead, Minnesota, or 12,500 people, had been advised to evacuate, said Jeanne Aamodt, spokeswoman for the state's emergency command center in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Moorhead is across the Red River from Fargo.
But she could not estimate how many people had actually left because state law prevents mandatory evacuations.
Two areas of Fargo, with 40 to 50 households each, were under mandatory evacuation orders, police said.
Water treatment plants in both cities were in no jeopardy. One of Fargo's two hospitals had evacuated patients.
Freezing temperatures are expected to remain on Saturday before some melting occurs on Sunday, Hudson said.
There is no snow in the city's forecast until Monday.
Flood barriers were holding, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is "worried about" a few spots where engineers could not get earth-moving equipment in and had to rely on sandbags instead, Corps spokeswoman Shannon Bauer said.
"They're still holding," Bauer said. "We're at the mercy of Mother Nature."
Most of the earth and sandbag dikes now protecting Fargo-Moorhead rise to 43 feet. The river topped the record level of 40.1 feet set in 1897 on Friday.
President Barack Obama on Saturday expressed support for flood-plagued residents and praised volunteers. Earlier, Obama issued disaster declarations for North Dakota and Minnesota.
Fargo resident Steve Poitras said he was lucky in the last big flood in 1997 but not so this time around. The Poitras family canoed away from its flooded home a few days ago.
"The river going past 40 feet was just too much. Once the weather warms, we will try to canoe back to see what the damage is. I think it will be hard to justify fixing it up again."
But life continued normally for some, like Vicki and Josh Krenz, whose twins Brennen and Lidia were born Friday in a Fargo hospital.
"Our babies are healthy and so far our house is safe. Good news all around," said Vicki Krenz, 31.
Reporting by Rod Nickel in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and Rich Mattern in Fargo; editing by Peter Bohan and Todd Eastham