Spring Rains, Melting Snow Drive Record Flood in Minot, N.D.
Minot flood breaks 1881 record, homes swamped
'Large portion' of 4,400 homes, 200 businesses evacuated are likely to be swamped
NBC, msnbc.com and news services, June 24, 2011
MINOT, N.D. — Geese and airboats on patrol shared the swamped streets of Minot on Friday as the Souris River surged past its 1881 flood record, rising so quickly that its progress could be seen inching up the side of homes.
At 11 a.m. local time, the Souris tied the 1881 record after rising 11 inches in the previous hour. It should rise as much as 6 or 7 feet higher over the weekend, fed by heavy rain upstream and water releases from Canadian reservoirs.
North Dakota's fourth-largest city expected widespread flood damage, and as many as 10,000 residents, about one-fourth of the population, were ordered from their homes earlier this week. Crews focused on protecting critical infrastructure to avoid an expanded evacuation.
"We don't like to lose," Capt. Jeff Hoffer, an Army National Guard officer, said during a tour of flooded areas Friday. "This is very disheartening. I feel badly for all the people."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched four boats on Friday to patrol flooded neighborhoods, ready to respond to 911 calls. City officials said no injuries or incidents had been reported overnight. The evacuation zone was empty except for emergency officials and the geese, who paddled in about 5 feet of water washing down the streets.
George Moe, whose house was about a block from the water's edge, returned briefly to pick up some keys. Moe said the only thing left in his house was the mounted head of an antelope shot by his wife, who died about three years ago.
Moe, 63, said he had lived in the house for 40 years. He worried about it as well as the shop where he works as a mechanic; it was taking on water and he was unsure he'd have a job after the flood.
"I hate to see something go to hell after 40 years," he said. "There ain't much you can do."
Forced to by heavy rain earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday accelerated water releases from the upstream Lake Darling dam. In just four days, the predicted release of water from the dam more than doubled — from 11,000 cubic feet per second to 29,000.
National Weather Service hydrologist Steve Buan laid the blame on 4 to 6 inches of rain that fell last week in largely rural — and saturated — areas to the north.
The water released Thursday night would reach Minot about Friday evening, officials said.
With peak water levels expected Saturday or Sunday, Minot officials said they have done everything they can to protect critical infrastructure.
Mayor Curt Zimbelman said dikes have been raised as much as possible around the city's sewer lift station and can't be raised any higher. The city was confident the water treatment plant was protected.
"We need to hope that they hold," Zimbelman said.
The city issued a voluntary evacuation notice Thursday to 400 more people in the river valley, although officials said damage to those homes might be no more than water in basements.
City Council President Dean Frantsvog said authorities expect "a large portion of" the 4,400 homes and 200 businesses that have been evacuated "will be inundated."
100 homes likely to be lost in nearby town
In Burlington, a town of about 1,000 people a few miles upstream on the confluence of the Souris and Des Lacs rivers, city officials abandoned sandbagging as hopeless. About a third of 320 houses are expected to be lost in the town that was founded in 1883 and is the oldest in Ward County.
"We're no longer able to save the city," Burlington Mayor Jerome Gruenberg said Thursday.
Burlington officials instead sent people to help with a frenzied labor around Minot, a town best known for its Air Force base but also an important agricultural center and home to many laborers drawn to the oil boom in western North Dakota.
Heavy equipment hauled dirt and clay to raise dikes wherever possible — an effort Zimbelman said would continue until rising water made it impossible. Workers and National Guard members were the only people to be seen in evacuated areas.
Fast-flowing water had overtopped dikes in some places and risen to the first level on several homes. A trailer park was under water. In one area, an old Chevy was half-submerged.
Near the water treatment plant, water had risen above a bridge deck; orange barricades blocked any traffic at either end. Loose clothes, beer cans, dark trash bags, a tire and other assorted trash could be seen floating in the Souris, cast off by departing residents.
Kathy Sivertson, 52, who lives a block outside the initial evacuation zone, was opting to ignore the recommendation for expanded evacuations. She spent part of Thursday moving her belongings out of her basement but said she'd stay in her house until "they kick me out."
Meanwhile, Leon Delker, 55, who lives nine blocks from the river, brought in a survey crew that estimated the water would rise 3 feet on his front door. He planned to remove everything but the American flag in front of his home and "stay out until this thing is over."
Some residents took refuge on the Souris River Golf Course, where longtime pro Steve Kottsick, 59, pieced together a makeshift 8-hole layout on the flooded course. More than 30 people took their swings on Thursday.
"People are a little down and out," Kottsick said. "Hopefully it helps them maintain some sense of normality."
The city's other 18-hole golf course, the Minot Country Club, lost its clubhouse Thursday.
Amtrak has suspended Empire Builder passenger train service in part of Minnesota, North Dakota and eastern Montana due to flooding.
The Red Cross has set up shelters at the Minot Auditorium and at Minot State University for displaced residents. A couple of hundred people have used them so far, but that number is expected to increase.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been studying the housing needs in the area, but an official said as of Thursday night that they had ruled out bringing in trailers.
Many residents have moved in with friends or family and stored furniture from vacated homes at an area ice arena, temporary storage facilities and in garages across the city.
The massive flooding at Minot has overshadowed temporarily the widening deluge along the Missouri River that threatens cities from Montana through Missouri.
Federal officials have pushed record water releases from six reservoirs along the Upper Missouri River that are near capacity because of a deep melting snowpack and heavy rains.
Those reservoirs have little capacity for additional rain and record releases are expected to continue through August, causing widespread flooding in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
Minot, North Dakota Flooding: Thousands Of Evacuees Struggle To Find Places To Stay
The Huffington Post, June 24, 2011
MINOT, N.D. -- Many of the thousands who have fled their homes as the Souris River spills into the North Dakota city of Minot have been scrambling to relocate in a region that boasts few vacancies in even the best of times, thanks largely to the state's oil boom.
Officials said as many as 10,000 people had evacuated Minot by Wednesday, and while a few hundred were staying in temporary city shelters, many others were staying on friends' couches, under tents or even in vehicles.
Aquira Fritt, 23 years old and 7 1/2 months pregnant, planned to spend the night in a van with her boyfriend and 5-year-old son.
"There are no hotel rooms, no campers to rent, nothing," Fritt said Wednesday, shortly before emergency sirens blared to signal the evacuation deadline. "It's very stressful and it's very annoying."
Her son, Azzyah, considered it an adventure.
"He thinks it's a campout," Fritt said. "He's happy he gets a chance to use his sleeping bag."
The water is expected to climb to record levels over the coming days in parts of this Air Force town as the little-known waterway swells from rain and snowmelt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple warned that releases planned to begin on Thursday would be dramatic.
"In two days' time, it will be a rapid, rapid rise," Dalrymple said.
The river, which begins in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and flows for a short distance though North Dakota, was all but certain to inundate thousands of homes and businesses during the next week.
Allan McGeough, executive director of the Minot chapter of the Red Cross, said a few hundred people showed up at the city's homeless shelters Wednesday night. Both he and Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman expected that number to increase, but Zimbelman said a majority of people have opened their doors to evacuees.
"I tell you what, North Dakotans are pretty good people," Zimbelman said. "They're finding places either with friends or neighbors or family. Because there's not much room in our hotels. They're full with the oil people."
The oil boom in western North Dakota has taken off in the last two years, leading to an influx of thousands of workers, some of whom stay in Minot for months at a time and drive 70 miles west to the rigs. Plans are in place to construct so-called man camps to house the workers.
Wendy Howe, executive director of the Minot Convention & Visitors Bureau, said very few people called looking for lodging during the first evacuation in early June. She said it took fewer than a dozen lodging-related calls this week because early warning gave residents time to move in with friends or family.
She said Minot's 1,820 hotel and motel rooms averaged 80 percent occupancy through May on the strength of workers from the oil field, tourists from Canada and the city's location as a regional business hub, partly due to its major hospital and university.
Two shelters had been opened, one at the city's auditorium and the other at the athletic facility dome at Minot State University, McGeough said, both equipped with water, food, mental health professionals and nurses. They were nearing the combined capacity of 1,000 Wednesday night, but McGeough said others could be opened.
Maj. Gen. David Sprynczyantyk, the North Dakota National Guard commander, said the Guard is working with the federal government on a long-term housing plan for the evacuees. The plan should be announced within two days, he said.
Red Cross volunteers from as far as California were arriving to help, and nearly 500 National Guard soldiers were assisting with traffic control and the evacuation.
A quarter of the city's 41,000 residents had been facing a 6 p.m. evacuation order, but emergency sirens blared at 1 p.m. Wednesday, warning people that the deadline had been moved up by five full hours. Before making their escape, city crews sandbagged critical structures such as the water-treatment plant, city hall and school buildings.
"I feel so bad for everybody," said Robyn Whitlow, who lives outside the evacuation zone but was helping people load their belongings. She burst into tears when the siren went off.
The deluge along the Souris was expected to easily exceed a 1969 flood, possibly reaching 13.5 feet above flood stage by Monday. The river is expected to top the historical record set in 1881 by more than 5 feet.
Steve and Michelle Benjamin were hard at work Wednesday hauling an entertainment center, desk chairs and bicycles over an emergency levee to a trailered pickup truck. It was the last of nearly a dozen loads.
"Oh my God," said Michelle Benjamin, 46, fighting back tears as she watched water trickle over the dike. "It's not easy starting over at this age."
The couple, who have lived in a landscaped five-bedroom modular home for 16 years, had moved their belongings out of the river's path twice in less than a month.
The repeated moves were particularly taxing for Steve Benjamin, 51, who broke his back in 1984 and has had several surgeries, evidenced by a 20-inch scar spanning much of his bare back. The last item waiting to be loaded – other than their dogs Buster and Bear – was a water bed.
"I don't think the reality will set in until tomorrow, when we see the water in the house," he said.
Minot, the fourth-largest city in North Dakota, is less than 60 miles south of the Canadian border. It was founded in the late 1800s during construction of the Great Northern Railroad. The economy relies extensively on agriculture, as well as Minot Air Force Base and the recent oil boom in the western part of the state.
Associated Press Writers Wayne Ortman in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Jeffrey McMurray in Chicago contributed to this report.