FARGO, N.D. — Thousands of shivering, tired residents got out while they could and others prayed that miles of sandbagged levees would hold Friday as the Red River threatened to unleash the biggest flood North Dakota's largest city has ever seen.
The agonizing decision to stay or go came as the final hours ticked down before an expected crest on Sunday. The latest prediction by hydrologists was that the Red would crest at 42 feet Sunday afternoon, 2 feet above the record set 112 years ago. Concern remained that it could go as high as 43 feet.
The area got a one-day reprieve Friday night when the National Weather Service pushed its crest projection back from Saturday to Sunday afternoon, saying frigid temperatures had slowed the river's rise
"It's to the point now where I think we've done everything we can," said Dave Davis, whose Fargo neighborhood was filled with backhoes and tractors building an earthen levee. "The only thing now is divine intervention."
A cold, eerie calm hung over the water-swollen region. "Right now we're just holding our breath," said Moorhead, Minn., Mayor Mark Voxland.
About 2,600 households in Moorhead — about a third of the city — were asked to leave their homes. Hundreds more in Fargo were asked to evacuate.
Even after the floodwaters crest, the water may not begin receding before Wednesday, creating a lingering risk of a catastrophic failure in levees put together mostly by volunteers.
National Guard troops fanned out in the bitter cold to inspect floodwalls for leaks and weak spots, and residents piled sandbags on top of 12 miles of snow-covered dikes. The freezing weather froze the bags solid, turning them into what residents hoped would be a watertight barrier.
Hundreds more Guard troops poured in from around the state and South Dakota, along with scores of American Red Cross workers from as far away as Modesto, Calif. Small armies of volunteers filled sandbags in temperatures that barely rose into the double digits.
The river swelled Friday to 40.8 feet — more than 22 feet above flood stage and beyond the previous high-water mark of 40.1 feet in 1897. In one flooded neighborhood, a man paddled a canoe through ice floes and swirling currents.
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker cautiously expressed hope that the river would stay below 43 feet — the limit of the reinforced dikes. Walaker said there was not enough time to build the levees any higher.
Fargo escaped devastation from flooding in 1997, when Grand Forks was ravaged by a historic flood 70 miles to the north. This year, the river has been swollen by heavier-than-average winter snows, combined with an early freeze last fall that locked a lot of moisture into the soil. The threat has been made worse by spring rains.
"I think the river is mad that she lost the last time," said engineer Mike Buerkley as he tossed sandbags onto his pickup truck after working 29 straight hours.
About 1,700 National Guard troops helped reinforce the dikes and conduct patrols for leaks. Police restricted traffic to allow trucks laden with sandbags, backhoes and other heavy equipment to get through.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said from Washington that between 80,000 and 100,000 residents might need to be moved out of harm's way in the worst-case scenario.
She said President Barack Obama "is personally watching this one," but she would advise him to stay out of the area for now so he won't divert resources.
Although the Red was churning between Fargo and Moorhead at 33,500 cubic feet per second — roughly 20 times faster than usual — the cold reduced its speed, pushing back a crest originally forecast for today.