Residents of North Dakota got a welcome reprieve Friday night when forecasters said frigid temperatures were slowing the rise of the Red River, which is now expected to crest on Sunday instead of Saturday, as predicted earlier.
Late Friday, the National Weather Service revised its prediction that the Red River would crest at about 13.1 metres on Saturday. The forecaster now says the river would likely crest at 12.8 metres sometime Sunday afternoon, with levels holding that high through Wednesday.
But the weather service said water levels could "potentially" still rise to 13.1 metres.
Ahead of what could be disastrous flooding from the rising river, officials in Minnesota asked thousands of households in a city bordering the river to evacuate the area earlier Friday.
About one-third of the households in Moorhead — 2,660 in all — are affected, said city spokeswoman Becky Jahnke.
The move follows the mandatory evacuation of more than 190 homes, nursing homes, hospitals and a county jail in North Dakota as the swollen Red River broke a 112-year-old flood level record on Friday.
Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama dispatched the acting head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to the region.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Nancy Ward is in Fargo and Obama has personally spoken with the governors of both states and with Fargo's mayor.
Gibbs said the federal government is working closely with state and local leaders to give them any help they need.5
In other evacuations, Fargo police ordered residents to evacuate about 150 houses in a neighbourhood south of the city's downtown at about 2 a.m. on Friday after a "significant leak" was found in a dike at a crook in the river, said police Capt. Tod Dahle.
Crews were working to patch the breach on Friday.
Though the water wasn't rushing toward the homes, the integrity of the dike is in doubt and that causes an immediate threat, Dahle said.
Officers knocked on doors and used a phone system to tell residents to leave.
Everyone had been evacuated from the homes by about 3:30 a.m., Dahle said. Area residents were being told to move farther west, local media reported.
Officials also ordered the evacuation of the area around the River Vili neighbourhood late Thursday after cracks were found in an earthen levee.
No water has yet breached the levee, officials said, and the evacuation is a precautionary measure.
Officials went door-to-door to about 40 houses and ordered residents to leave. The Riverview Estates nursing home was also evacuated.
Four other nursing homes in the region have reported moving their residents voluntarily due to the floodwaters and Fargo's Merit Care Hospital transported 180 people to facilities in other towns.
Northwest Airlines was sending two jetliners to the region Friday to move patients at area hospitals to safer locations, said Senator Byron Dorgan.
Four hundred people have left their homes in Fargo, and more than 100 inmates were taken from the county jail to other lockups in the region, officials said.
Authorities have also told 1,000 residents living between the main dikes and the backup dikes in various parts of the city that they must be prepared to leave their homes in the next 24 hours.
The Red Cross sent an additional 150 people to North Dakota on Friday to operate the rapidly filling emergency shelters in Grand Forks, Bismarck, Fargo and Moorhead.
"No one living has ever seen something like this," said Red Cross spokeswoman Courtney Johnson. "We preach preparedness. We can't not be prepared."
The river level reached 12.3 metres by early Friday, breaking a previously recorded high of 12.22 metres in April 1897.
'We do not want to give up yet. We want to go down swinging if we go down.' — Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker
North Dakota and seven Minnesota counties have been declared a disaster zone by the U.S. government.
With the river now more than six metres above flood stage, there appears to be a growing sense in Fargo that despite best efforts, it may not be possible to build dikes high enough to hold back the river.
There is fear the flooding may prove as disastrous as in 1997, when tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes in North Dakota, Minnesota and southern Manitoba. In the United States, 11 people died as a result of the 1997 flood, which caused an estimated $4.1 billion US in damage.
The higher-than-expected floodwaters have residents and officials stepping up sandbagging operations in an effort to build higher dikes that may save Fargo from flooding.
'Go down swinging'
"We do not want to give up yet. We want to go down swinging if we go down," Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker said Thursday.
But Walaker said the city will not be working to build its 13.1-metre dike any higher because forecasts suggest the Red River will crest before exceeding that level.
"We're not going to proceed to take it to 44 [feet or 13.4 metres]," Walaker said Friday. "Is that a gamble? We don't think so."
Walaker said members of the National Guard will be patrolling the dike looking for any possible breaches.
Main roads around Fargo, a city of 92,000, were blocked on Friday so sandbag trucks could more easily navigate the area. Traffic jams have been plaguing the region, officials said.
Local residents and 6,000 volunteers have been scrambling in subfreezing temperatures to pile sandbags along the river. They spent much of Thursday preparing for a crest of 12.5 metres, but later in the day, forecasters said the river may reach up to 13.1 metres.
"Record flows upstream of Fargo have produced unprecedented conditions" on the river, which "is expected to behave in ways never previously observed," the U.S. National Weather Service said.
The news is demoralizing, said Dick Bailly, 64.
"We got a lot of work to do. People have the will to respond but you can only fight nature so much and sometimes nature wins."
More than 70 residents living in rural areas around Fargo have had to be rescued and transported out of the area, said Pat Connor, an official with the Cass County sheriff's department.
"I've lived here 40 years and over a 30-minute span I've reached a point where I'm preparing to evacuate and expect never to sleep in my house again," said Tim Corwin, 55, whose south Fargo home was sheltered by sandbags to 13.1 metres.
North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven urged residents to continue with their efforts.
"We know they're tired, but we need to hang in there and continue the work," he said.
More than 1,700 National Guard members are in the area to aid the sandbagging efforts and to respond to the emergency situation.
River levels are expected to remain high for at least a week after the river crests, according to the weather service.
Across the river in Moorhead, residents living in the southwest corner of the city and a low-lying township to the north have also been told to leave and shelters have been set up for displaced residents. Officials said several more blocks of houses had been added to the evacuation order in Moorhead on Friday but the total number of affected people was not clear.
In Bismarck, the threat seemed to be lessened after explosives were used to break up an ice jam on the Missouri River.