FARGO, N.D. — Weary residents of this sandbagged city came together in churches Sunday, counting their blessings that the Red River finally stopped rising and praying the levees would hold back its wrath.
A brief levee break that swamped a school provided a warning of the kind of threat that still hangs over them in the days ahead.
Church services on Sunday morning in Fargo took on even greater significance as people gathered after a week of round-the-clock sandbagging.
"At a time like this, we need to call on God's providential assistance," said the Rev. Bob Ona, pastor of Fargo's First Assembly of God church.
The Red River continued its slow retreat Sunday after cresting a day earlier, dropping below record level to 39.88 feet. City officials have said they would breathe easier when the river falls to 37 feet or lower, expected by Saturday, meaning a lengthy test for sandbag levees that residents hastily constructed last week.
Fargo faces another test this week as a storm approached with up to a half-foot of snow and powerful wind gusts that could send ferocious waves crashing into and over the already-stressed levees.
The sandbag effort resumed Sunday as helicopters began dropping 11 one-ton sandbags into the river to deflect its violent current and keep it from eroding vulnerable areas of the dike system.
The aerial effort also included an unmanned Predator drone used to watch flood patterns and ice floes and provide high-definition information. North Dakota has more than 2,400 National Guard troops engaged in the flood fight across the state.
The helicopter sandbag effort was focused on an area of the river that put another scare into the city during the night when it burst past a levee and submerged a Lutheran school campus.
Oak Grove Lutheran Principal Morgan Forness said city officials, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Guard unsuccessfully tried to contain the gushing water after a floodwall buckled around 1:30 a.m. The water kept spreading and "we couldn't contain it. … it's inundating all of the buildings," Forness said.
Moorhead, a city of 30,000 across the river in Minnesota, also was fighting to hold back the river. Mayor Mark Voxland said he was concerned but still optimistic about how long his city's dike could last against the pressure of the river water. "Some of us aren't sure how strong they might be," he said. "We have a long way to go."
The flood was caused by an enormous winter snowfall that melted and combined with more precipitation to send the river to record levels.