The Souris River has slowly overtaken roads, yards and entire neighbourhoods in Minot but in the next two days the waterway is expected to roar through the North Dakota city.
Officials in the state's fourth-largest city said they have done all they can to protect critical infrastructure from the rising river as it heads toward a record flood.
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 is confident the water treatment plant is protected.
"We need to hope that they hold," Zimbelman said.
'The water is coming in deeper and faster than was expected.' —North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple
Failures there would worsen a desperate situation in Minot, where as many as 12,000 people — a quarter of the city's population — were ordered to evacuate Wednesday.
As well, fuel pumps at several gas stations in the evacuation zone have been removed to protect them from being toppled by the rushing water.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday again accelerated water releases from the upstream Lake Darling dam. Officials said the move could raise the river up to 0.9 metres higher than earlier projections — or a whopping two metres above the historical record level of 475 metres, set in 1881 — by Saturday.
Already on Friday, floodwaters were washing through the main level of many homes. And on Saturday, the water is expected to be three metres, or 10 feet, above most city dikes.
"The water is coming in deeper and faster than was expected," North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said.
In the past four days, the predicted release of water from the Lake Darling dam has more than doubled, from 11,000 cubic feet per second to 29,000. National Weather Service hydrologist Steve Buan laid the blame on 15 centimetres of rain that fell last week in largely rural — and saturated — areas to the north.
"The short answer is, yes, it was from rain," Buan said.
In Burlington, a town of about 1,000 people a few kilometres upstream on the confluence of the Souris and Des Lacs rivers, city officials on Thursday 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
"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 labour around Minot, a town best known for its Air Force base but also an important agricultural centre and home to many labourers 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.
Near the water treatment plant, water had risen above a bridge deck; orange barricades blocked 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.
Broadway Bridge, on a major north-south artery, was closed around midday and officials fretted over the possible closure of other bridges that would effectively cut the city in two. Two bridges remained open.
"There's a mood of despair here in Minot as people in the evacuation zone come out to see just how much their homes are being damaged by this flood," reported CBC News' Brady Strachan, who joined some residents on a high bridge in town on Thursday and Friday.
From that vantage point, people can see homes being surrounded by water.
"Let me tell you, it is just catastrophic to see the change from yesterday," Strachan said. "Yesterday, the water was starting to seep over the dikes, starting to rise on homes. But now it is completely over the dikes in all places that I can see from this bridge.
"I just spoke with a resident who I'd been talking to yesterday and he came out to see his home this morning.
"He slept in a camper last night, said he only got about four hours of sleep and he says it's just a sick feeling in his stomach to see the water up on his house and knowing he can't do anything about it."
The Souris River loops down from Saskatchewan through north central North Dakota then returns north into Manitoba, passing through the communities of Melita, Hartney, Souris and Wawanesa before joining the Assiniboine River at Treesbank.
Minot is about 90 kilometres south of the Canadian border, almost directly below the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary.
The river and torrential rains feeding into it have also caused havoc across southeastern Saskatchewan, where a number of communities have declared states of emergency as they deal with flooded homes, businesses and crumbling roads.
In Manitoba, municipal leaders in communities along the Souris are meeting with provincial officials to get a handle on how much water is headed their way from Minot.
"I will be inquiring as to what percentage of that in Minot can we really expect in Souris, so that's the answers I'm looking for," said Souris Mayor Darryl Jackson.
When those questions are answered, the communities can start building up their dikes, but Jackson worries there could be some properties that can't be protected.
The water from Minot is expected to arrive in the town of Souris in about two weeks.