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ND officials: Permanent flood protection needed

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DAVE KOLPACK | March 21, 2013 07:13 PM EST | AP

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FARGO, N.D. — With its ominously titled slideshow, "Get ready for a big one," the National Weather Service told flood-weary residents in the Fargo area Thursday to prepare for one of the Red River's five largest crests this spring, an outlook that prompted city and county officials to plead for permanent flood protection.

The latest weather service flood outlook for Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., includes a 50 percent chance that the river would top 38 feet later this spring, which would surpass the fifth-highest crest of 37.34 feet in 1969. There's a 10 percent chance of an all-time record.

"It's March madness again," said Fargo City Administrator Pat Zavoral. He noted that it would be the fourth major flood in five years, including a record crest of 41 feet in 2009.

Chances of a top-five flood increased with near-record cold temperatures that have delayed the snowmelt, which isn't expected to begin until the first week of April, NWS officials said. The chances of major rainfall totals also increase around that time.

"That's a volatile mix," said Greg Gust, NWS meteorologist. He added, "The bottom line is that we have a way above normal snowpack sitting out there right now."

The flood threat comes as Congress is to consider whether to help fund a nearly $2 billion diversion channel around the Fargo-Moorhead area, a project that has come up against roadblocks.

Residents downstream of the north-flowing river are protesting about a holding area that would flood homes and farmland in times of high water. And the North Dakota Legislature's House Majority Leader Al Carlson, who is from Fargo, has said he wants to see a federal commitment before the state ponies up money for the diversion.

"Frankly, the fourth major flood in five years really emphasizes that we need to continue to work toward permanent flood protection so we're not here in this emergency mode every year," Keith Berndt, Cass County administrator, said.

Berndt said he expects "significant damage" in rural areas if the river reaches 38 feet.

Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said the city will "do whatever's necessary" to protect its residents. The city is asking for volunteers to help make 500,000 sandbags, which would add to a reserve of 750,000 bags.

The operation, tabbed "Sandbag Central," is expected to open on April 3. The city expects to place 1.1 million sandbags and the county plans to utilize 500,000 sandbags to protect structures.

Fargo-Moorhead residents battled three straight major floods beginning in 2009, when the record crest forced thousands to evacuate and caused an estimated $100 million in damage. The river crested at 36.99 feet in 2010, and 38.75 feet in 2011 – the fourth highest crest on record.

"I know it's getting old. Extremely old for everybody," Walaker said.

Fargo has spent $100 million on flood protection since the 2009 flood, buying out hundreds of homes in low-lying areas and building about 20 levees. Moorhead has invested more than $88 million on similar projects in the last four years.

Walaker said it's not enough.

"The only solution to this process is very simple. A diversion has to go through," he said.

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