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Cities along Red River prepare for floods

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Houses and businesses are closed Monday after heavy flooding over the weekend in Breckenridge, Minnesota  

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BRECKENRIDGE, Minnesota (CNN) -- Hundreds of residents and volunteers worked Monday to build a wall of sandbags around Breckenridge to protect people and property from the rising Red River and its tributaries.

Four years ago the river overflowed its banks and caused devastating damage in what was dubbed "the flood of the century" in North Dakota and Minnesota.

Farm fields across the region already have been turned into lakes and, with the rivers still rising, the situation is expected to get worse.

"I can't believe we're doing this again," Breckenridge Mayor Cliff Barth said on CNN. "This is only four years after our major flood last time, and it's brought back a lot of hard memories."

Breckenridge and its partner city on the opposite bank, Wahpeton, North Dakota, lie where the Bois de Sioux and Otter Tail rivers meet to form the Red River. The rivers are expected to be pushed higher by rain, which is forecast for the region midweek, and higher temperatures, which will melt snow still on the ground.

Monday afternoon, the Red was hovering steadily near 17 feet in Breckenridge. Dikes will protect Breckenridge and Wahpeton to 22 feet, said Barth. With up to 1-1/2 inches of rain forecast in the next few days, the river is expected to crest at 19-1/2 feet by the end of the week. "It's going excellent, we should finish up our levee production by today," he said.

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CNN's Jeff Flock reports from the Ottertail River in Breckenridge, Minnesota

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Correspondent Julie Borgen talks with people piling up the sandbags and reminiscing about the flood four years ago

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Outside Breckenridge Public Elementary School across the street from the Otter Tail River, students were attending classes as usual Monday, while workers piled sandbags around the building.

In Wahpeton, emergency management officials also worked around the clock on flood protection efforts.

"We're basically going to crest at the same level that we did in 1997, and that was supposed to be our 100-year flood," said Denise Hendrickson, director of Wahpeton's emergency services.

Further north along the Red River, the cities of Fargo and Grand Forks, North Dakota, were expecting to be spared a repeat of the 1997 flood, the valley's worst in nearly 150 years.

Miles Clow, a volunteer with the Grand Forks Emergency Management Office, said the Red River was expected to crest between 43 and 45 feet on April 18 or 19, well below the 54-foot crest of 1997. The dikes there give protection up to levels of 50 feet.

"We're watching and waiting at this point," said Peter Haga, Grand Forks city spokesman. "Although we sustained large damage four years ago, we've learned some lessons from that and we're sitting at a pretty comfortable level at this point."

After 1997's flood, the city began building an improved flood protection system that includes larger dikes and sewer system improvements. Also, homes along the river were moved back.

The city of Fargo was also monitoring the situation, said Cass County Emergency Manager Greg McDonald.

"They're preparing for a serious flood, but not a record flood, here in the area right now," he said. "The potential is there for a lot of damage."

Fargo also took preventive measures after the flood four years ago, buying out 52 homes along the river.

"It saved us from having to worry about those folks," McDonald said.

The forecast of rain was of biggest concern to city officials because the ground is already saturated. An emergency was declared for the county to allow the Army Corps of Engineers to begin construction of a huge, clay dike to protect the city from the rising river.

CNN Chicago Bureau Chief Jeff Flock contributed to this report.



RELATED STORIES:
Minnesota, Dakotas pile sandbags against rising rivers
April 8, 2001
Midwest storm knocks out power, floods homes
April 7, 2001

RELATED SITES:
National Weather Service
UM Weather (University of Michigan)

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