Minot flood accelerating, officials say

Flooding in Minot, N.D., is worsening, with water flowing three times faster than originally expected four days ago, town officials said.

Flooding worsens as water flows faster than was expected

Flooding in Minot, N.D., is worsening, with water flowing three times faster than originally expected four days ago, town officials said.

The river is going to rise about three metres above the flood stage instead of the expected two.

North Dakota authorities expanded their evacuation order Thursday for the state's fourth-largest city, citing danger from the rising Souris River.

It wasn't clear how many residents were affected.

National Guard Capt. Dan Murphy said officials were still examining maps and planned to release more information later.

"The bottom line is they're just trying to get everybody out of the area where they think the property is going to be inundated," Murphy said.

Some blame Canada

Some flood victims in Minot, N.D., are blaming Canadian officials for record flooding that could wipe out a quarter of that city and want Ottawa to pay damages.

Rick Brown and his family have three houses in Minot's flood zone. Two of the houses have already been flooded, he said, and he believes the operators of dams in Canada and the United States are to blame.

"Use common sense, keep those dams down low. If the dams would have been down low to begin with we wouldn't be having these problems — and I don't only blame Canada for it."

However, Brown said he thinks Canada should pay for some of the flood damage in Minot.

More than 10,000 residents were evacuated a day earlier as the Souris, swollen by heavy rains and snowmelt, threatened.

On Thursday, officials accelerated the release of water from the Lake Darling dam upstream and said it could raise the river as much as one metre higher than earlier projections. Officials also announced the closure of the Broadway Bridge, shutting down a key north-south artery in the city.

Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman said the record flow of water into the city will test its sewer and water systems.

"We're very concerned, especially with the backups in the sewer system. We've had several areas where we've had crushed sewer lines," Zimbelman said. "With those types of things happening, it's at the top of our minds all the time."

National Guard members were checking pumps and adding sandbags Thursday to the levee that protects the sewer and water treatment plant on the southwest side of the city.

Parts of the city were already flooding. One trailer park near the river was under about a metre of water. Much of Thursday's effort focused on protecting critical infrastructure, including sewer and water service. More evacuations could become necessary if either is knocked out by flooding.

Seeking shelter

It's a region that boasts few vacancies largely due to an oil boom in western North Dakota leading to an influx of workers. Some stay in Minot for months at a time and drive 180 kilometres west to the rigs.

Plans are in place to construct so-called man camps to house the workers.

Frank Hughes and Cheyenne Johnson pass time in the temporary disaster relief shelter set up at the Municipal Auditorium in Minot, N.D. (Christian Randolph/The Grand Forks Herald)

With few hotel rooms available, evacuees were staying in city shelters, on friends' couches or even in cars.

Aquira Fritt, 23 years old and 7½ months pregnant, planned to spend the night in a van with her boyfriend and five-year-old son.

"There are no hotel rooms, no campers to rent, nothing," Fritt said Wednesday, shortly before the emergency sirens blared. "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 river has been bloated by heavy spring snowmelt and rain on both sides of the border. It 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.

The Souris River starts in Saskatchewan then meanders through North Dakota before heading north into Manitoba and joining the Assiniboine River at Treesbank.

Minot is about 90 kilometres south of the Canadian border, almost directly below the Manitoba-Saskatchewan boundary.

The Souris 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 the coming days, the river through Minot is expected to dwarf the major flood of 1969. That's when the Souris reached 474 metres above sea level. It's expected on the weekend to hit nearly 476 metres, surpassing even the historical record level of 475 metres, set in 1881.

"In two days time, it will be a rapid, rapid rise," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said.

"Even at the level that it's at now, it's going to do a lot of damage," said Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman.

"At that level it pretty much fills the valley. Those people that have been in Minot know that we're built on two hillsides and the valley has probably about a third of our people."

The 1969 flood prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to build a dike system that has been beefed up several times this spring.

But those levees are unable to handle flows from Saskatchewan of approximately 800 cubic metres per second.

"You hate to admit defeat at any time, but as far as our permanent dike, it can't handle the kind of water that we're going to see," Zimbelman said.

Long-term housing plan for evacuees

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 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 neighbours or family. Because there's not much room in our hotels."

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.

Wendy Howe, executive director of the Minot Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Minot's 1,820 hotel and motel rooms averaged 80 per cent 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.

Lucas Haag takes a picture of a flooded pedestrian bridge in Minot on Wednesday. ((Will Kincaid/Associated Press))

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.

"I feel so bad for everybody," said Robyn Whitlow, who lives outside the evacuation zone but was helping people load their belongings prior to the siren sounding on Wednesday.

She burst into tears when the siren went off.

"Oh my God," said Michelle Benjamin, 46, fighting back tears as she watched water trickle over the dike on Wednesday as she and husband Steve, 51, hauled furniture and other belongings over an emergency levee to a pickup truck —  the last of nearly a dozen loads.

"It's not easy starting over at this age."

The couple has lived in a landscaped five-bedroom home for 16 years.

"I don't think the reality will set in until … we see the water in the house," Steve Benjamin said.

A map by the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services shows a projected worst-case scenario of flooding from the Souris River in Minot. ((North Dakota Department of Emergency Services/Associated Press))

This is the second evacuation in the month for those 10,000 residents, who left the town in early June before the river hit 473.6 metres. They were later let back into their homes but were cautioned to be ready to leave again quickly.

"We've been fighting this thing, as those in Saskatchewan probably know, we've been fighting this since you know, April. And it's been a long time already.  It's wearing on people and we've probably got a month or two left," said Zimbelman.

Resident Jodene Blake came to watch the flooding on a high bridge in the city, where many people have gathered. From that vantage point, she could see her home being surrounded by water and the sight was heartbreaking, she said.

"I've cried so much, I can't cry anymore. And I might have to move with my daughter down to Colorado. I don't know," she said.

"There's nothing here for me."

Manitoba towns wait, worry

The emergency measures officer for the town of Souris is trying to get a handle on how much water is headed his way from Minot.

Sven Kreusch will meet with provincial officials on Friday to try to figure out exactly what needs to be done to prepare the community.

"Like in some spots, we have to go up six feet and some spots we don't. We need to find out where our main area is right now," he said.

Other Manitoba communities along the Souris, such as Melita, Hartney and Wawanesa will also be involved in the meeting, Kreusch said.

There has been a lot of confusion and concern among municipal leaders in those communities since flood officials announced on Wednesday that some dikes in those areas would need to be raised by as much as 2.4 metres when the crest from Minot hits in about two weeks.

"It does put us in a predicament," said Souris Mayor Darryl Jackson, whose community was identified as requiring some dikes to be raised by 1.8 metres.

"We may have to make some tough decisions on the homes that have been evacuated and maybe some others. Can we build the dikes that are there any higher?"

Jackson said they would need to bring in super sandbags but they don't have the equipment in the town, and the ground might be too soggy for heavy equipment.

"We need the help of some provincial engineers and we're hoping that request will be answered in short order," he said.