FARGO, North Dakota (Reuters) - For Sherri and John Stern, who have lived together on the Red River in Fargo, North Dakota for 16 years, building a sandbag barrier is step one in an annual flood battle — a 24-hour pumping operation comes next.
Movers this week pulled furniture from the lower level of the Sterns’ house and ripped out the carpet to reduce damage from seeping water as the Red River continued a rapid rise.
“Any spring there is anxiety,” Sherri Stern said on Thursday. “We didn’t expect to have water that we would have to start pumping this fast.”
The Red River swelled to within four feet of its forecasted crest at Fargo-Moorhead on Thursday as volunteers piled up sandbags. At the forecasted level, the Red River crest would be the third highest on record behind 2009 and 1997.
The flood has potential to force thousands of people from their homes in North Dakota and Minnesota based on past similar floods, but protection is better this year, said Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.
The Red, which forms the boundary between the two states, rose to 35.9 feet at Fargo-Moorhead by mid-afternoon, leaving it within four feet of the expected 39.5 foot crest forecast for Sunday.
The river looked to crest just ahead of collecting runoff from a heavy rain expected on the weekend, the National Weather Service said at midday Thursday.
Further upstream at Grand Forks, North Dakota, the Red is forecast to crest on Wednesday at nearly 51 feet, its highest level since a disastrous 1997 flood that prompted a major overhaul of the city’s flood defenses.
In the Sterns’ backyard, a sandbag levee erected by volunteers is big enough to hold back a 42 foot crest, what would be a record level for the Red River in Fargo, Sherri Stern said.
Fargo has a standing voluntary offer to buy homes in the Sterns’ neighborhood and three were recently demolished. The Sterns have no plans to move.
Three weeks of anxiety aside, “the rest of the year we have got a beautiful setting looking down at the river,” Stern said.
On Thursday water ran over many rural roads, and four bridges in Fargo were expected to close due to high river levels, as a last-minute effort by thousands of students took public sandbagging efforts close to completion.
North Dakota does not estimate the number of evacuations that might be required and a definitive figure is not even available from two years ago, Fong said. Estimates range from 17,500 to 31,800 evacuations in 2009, she said.
Complacency may be setting in, however, with Fargo-Moorhead carrying out its third flood fight in as many years, as officials feared some residents had not started building dikes to protect their homes.
FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was to arrive in North Dakota later on Thursday to help the state plan preparations.
The possibility of a partial government shutdown on Saturday, due to an impasse over a federal spending-cut bill, will not affect FEMA or U.S. Army Corps of Engineers efforts in fighting the flood, spokesmen for the agencies said.
If the government issues an emergency declaration, FEMA can also assign other federal agencies to flood-fighting roles outside their usual duties, FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said.
The Army Corps is already in the valley building clay dikes to protect roads, utility plants and police and fire stations.
National Guard units from North Dakota and Minnesota have been activated to patrol dikes, control traffic and be on alert to respond to emergency situations such as dike breaches.
The flood will have a major impact on how much land farmers can plant this spring.
The National Weather Service is calling for a flood well above the crest in 2001, when Red River Valley farmers left a record 800,000 acres unplanted due to flooding.
North Dakota has been the leading wheat-producing state the past two years and accounts for 16 percent of U.S. production.
Roughly one-fifth of the state’s wheat crop is at risk from flooding of the Red River and its tributaries, said Erica Olson, marketing specialist with the North Dakota Wheat Commission.
Flooding in each of the past two years delayed planting, but happened earlier than this year, Olsen said.
Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis, Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Andrew Stern in Chicago; Editing by Jerry Norton