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Better safe than sorry: Flood-prone North Dakota city has a million extra sandbags

The largest city in North Dakota suddenly has a million extra sandbags on its hands.

Earlier this month, expecting a catastrophic flood season, the city of Fargo called out a volunteer army to fill the bags. The effort included three enormous, spider-shaped, sand-spewing machines and deputized middle-school kids.

It was a huge success: Fargo wound up with more than 1.1 million sandbags. But now the National Weather Service has scaled back its flood prediction, and the city only needs 100,000.

The city says there’s no room for error. It plans to store the bags for future floods.

“We either rely on the National Weather Service, or we don’t,” Mayor Dennis Walaker told the Forum News Service, which owns newspapers in the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. “But who is going to be there if we fail?”

Soldiers of the North Dakota National Guard fill and load sandbags at a spider sandbag machine at the Northern Plains Commerce Center in Bismarck, N.D., on May 27, 2011. After an initial 32-day flood operation this spring, the North Dakota National Guard returned to flood duty May 23 in Minot, Bismarck and Mandan.

The city will start work Friday on building sandbag levees to 40 feet. The original plan was 43 feet. The weather service now predicts the Red River will crest at 38 to 40 feet late next week, depending on how much rain the city gets before then.

A 40-foot flood would still be close to a record for Fargo, which recorded 40.84 feet in 2009. It had near-record floods in 2010 and 2011.

Other parts of the Midwest are grappling with historic floods.

Waters were retreating Thursday in Peoria, Ill., after the Illinois River crested at 29.35 feet, beating a 70-year-old record. The Grand River at Grand Rapids, Mich., which also reached a record level, was expected to fall below flood stage Thursday.

Along the Mississippi River, no towns appeared to be in danger, but authorities are concerned that the flood will linger into May and strain earthen levees and hastily built sandbag walls.

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