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Blizzard threatens Fargo's strained levees

FARGO, N.D. - Beleaguered residents had barely stopped sandbagging for the flood that is still submerging roads and fields yesterday when Mother Nature struck again: A blizzard threatened to whip the Red River's waters into waves and pound holes in the patchwork levees.

Engineers worried the dikes could give way at any time, and National Guard troops used sheets of plastic to shield them against waves. But those who live here could do little but wait for the next disaster.

"You kind of feel like it's a Bruce Willis film with the next challenge, next challenge, next challenge," city commissioner Tim Mahoney said.

The winter storm was expected to bring up to a foot of snow and 30-mph winds. No one knows whether the levees will withstand the punishment.

"The difficulty with an epic flood is nobody has been through it before," Mahoney said. "You can't ask someone, 'Hey, what's going to happen next?'" The Red River dropped below 39 feet yesterday, nearly 2 feet below its peak but nearly 21 feet above flood stage. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 36 or 37 feet or lower.

Authorities were not especially worried about the snowfall because the flood will have receded enough by the time it melts. But forecasters have warned the river could drop 2 more feet in the coming days before inching upward again, with a possible second troublesome crest of 40 to 41 in mid-April.

Tim Bertschi of the Army Corps of Engineers said when water pressure gets strong enough the sandbags can shift, a weakness that surging water will quickly exploit.

Another potential problem is large chunks of ice in the river's currents. When those chunks hit a levee, they can speed its erosion or punch holes in the plastic sheeting. Once water gets in, a levee becomes much more susceptible to failure.

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