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Kurk Lee and his wife, Brandee, stack sandbags around their home on Cedar Lane in Newport. Cold weather last week slowed the Mississippi River's rise, and pushed back the river's crest until late this week. But officials said there's still a risk that floodwaters would top a levee along Cedar Lane. Bulletin photo by Jon Avise

Mississippi River crest slows, but flood preparations continue

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With freezing temperatures and fluctuating flood forecasts, Newport residents Kurk and Brandee Lee don't know what to expect from a swollen Mississippi River that flows roughly 100 yards from their home.

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Last week's cold snap has the National Weather Service predicting far lower crests this week. Officials in Newport say that means floodwaters will stop just short of the top of an 800-foot long levee that protects the low-lying riverside neighborhood where the Lees reside.

But the Lees -- Kurk is St. Paul Park's fire chief -- weren't taking any chances late last week, gathering friends to construct a wall of 2,000 sandbags around their Cedar Lane home with help from a group of Washington County volunteers who filled sandbags for six hours Thursday.

Newport officials aren't reinforcing the levee with sandbags, following a 2004 directive that cited the deteriorated state of the aging dike.

"It's the unknown that's the worst," Brandee said.

Forecasts early last week predicted the river would rise high enough to spill over the four-decade old levee that protects homes along Cedar Lane.

But the weeklong freeze was the best thing that could have happened, said Newport Public Works Superintendent Bruce Hanson. Now, the river is forecast to crest sometime Wednesday in St. Paul and Thursday in Hastings, with the river falling roughly a foot short of the top of the levee in Newort. Floodwaters are then expected to drop before temperatures warm and the spring melt continues.

In the meantime, Newport officials -- who had been gearing up for floodwaters to inundate Cedar Lane over the weekend -- will wait with fingers crossed, hoping for the best weather-wise.

"We'll just be watching as it warms up and that levee thaws for any leaks," Hanson said of the levee declared unsound in an Army Corps of Engineers report nearly a decade ago. "Basically, it's just a wait-and-see game."

A second crest is expected sometime in April, the National Weather Service predicted over the weekend, meaning south Washington County's flood prone neighborhoods aren't yet out of the woods.

"The height of the second crest will depend on how much precipitation we receive and how quickly our temperatures warm up," John Margraf, a National Weather Service meteorologist, said in a release.

A prolonged flood season comes with its own risks, Hanson warned. The longer water stays high, he said, the better chance that floodwaters go through, and not over, the levee.

"It's a whole new deal," he said. "It's not going over necessarily, but the longer it sits there the more saturated the levee gets. It adds a whole new dynamic."

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