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North Dakota National Guard Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds escorts Brian Axelson through floodwaters Wednesday in Minot to survey damage to Axelson's home. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)
North Dakota National Guard Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds escorts Brian Axelson through floodwaters Wednesday in Minot to survey damage to Axelson's home. (AP Photo/James MacPherson)

Minoters get first look at flooded homes, First evacuees find sewage damage

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Detroit Lakes, 56501

Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

MINOT, N.D. - Gene Ritchie gestured with his hands as he talked, drawing an imaginary line down the middle of 21st Street Northwest. On the one side, there was flood water. On the other, there wasn't.

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The house that he was helping to clean out was on the side with the flood water, he said as he took a break from ripping out wet drywall and carpet. A mound of musty garbage on the berm testifies to his labor and that of his brother Gary, who owns the home.

The Souris River rose as much as four inches above the main floor here at the edge of the evacuation zone in the city's northwest quadrant. It's a mess inside, with little pink chunks of drywall mushed against the bare, plywood floors, but the water wasn't high enough to damage the refrigerator and stove; they still work.

"This house here is about the last one that got flooded," Ritchie said. His own home is just two blocks south, where the waters of the Souris River are still high, he said, and he's guessing that, at its peak, it had gotten a bit higher than the kitchen counter.

On the other end of the block from Gary Ritchie's house, the house belonging to Bill Slater and his wife, Penny Lafromboise, was a study in contrast.

It almost escaped the flood unscathed but for backed-up sewage in the basement. Slater started out without the right equipment, and had to spend a few sleepless days keeping an eye on the sewer plugs while his wife was away. He nodded off once and sewage spurted in. There are chunks of carpet and linoleum torn out of the basement floor where he cleaned up, but he insisted it wasn't a big deal, not when compared to his neighbors.

"All I gotta do to give me peace of mind is go down here and look at these other people down here," he said, pointing east down the street, where in the distance the river still covers the pavement.

His wife admitted she did break down a little when she smelled the sewage in her home, but she said she kept reproaching herself. "I said, 'Quit complaining, Penny. Yeah, you went through whatever, but you have your home. ... Be grateful.' "

Of the three areas where flood evacuees have been allowed to return as of Wednesday, this one was the hardest hit. The stories from here may be a foreshadowing of what awaits when the Souris River recedes enough for evacuees to return to the more heavily damaged homes.

Authorities estimated that 4,000 homes were affected by flooding, of which 800 were severely damaged. About a quarter of Minot's 41,000 residents evacuated.

There are no plans yet to allow more evacuees to return. City officials said they're waiting for the river to recede further and must give time for inspectors to ensure safety. As of Wednesday evening, the Souris River at Minot's Broadway bridge gauge was at 1,556.8, nearly two feet above major flood stage.

Messy job

Down in the basement, Gary and Gene Ritchie described a difficult cleanup job.

There was about a foot and a half of river water when they returned, which wouldn't be so bad if it weren't mixed with sewage. After they pumped out most of the water, what was left was two inches of raw sewage that, for the most part, they had to scoop up with shovels and buckets.

They're still not through battling the sewage because they've got to ensure the sewage plugs stay plugged despite the pressure against them. There's a pile of sandbags on top of the plug to ensure it stays put.

That was before tearing out the carpet and carpet padding, they said. They had to cut the carpet into strips because, soaked with water, it just weighed a ton.

Gary Ritchie said he worked in housing maintenance at the Minot Air Force Base for 15 years, so he's got the equipment for this sort of thing, including multiple pumps. "We're better equipped than most people to handle this," he said.

Learning curve

Bill Slater was definitely not equipped to handle his sewage backup. His basement is furnished as if it were a second home, so there's a bathroom, a shower and a kitchen, which is a lot of drains to plug. He and his wife had owned the house since 1995, but nothing like this had happened before.

He didn't realize just how much he had to do, he said, and didn't even have a sump pump on hand. "I didn't have the knowledge; I didn't understand the magnitude of what could happen."

Other than the ripped up carpet and linoleum, there wasn't much sign of the sewage Wednesday, as he and his wife had cleaned up a lot of the mess. But he described the horror of seeing sewage shoot out of the kitchen sink and the two inches of it that accumulated on the floor.

Money matters

The Ritchie brothers and Slater and Fromboise expect that they'll be dealing with the flood damage mostly on their own. Federal aid, though quick in coming, has been a bit underwhelming.

The Ritchie brothers said they don't mind the federal aid much, but they wished the government could organize volunteers to help out, especially when older people have to clean up.

But the brothers consider themselves fortunate, still.

"You take elderly people," Gene Ritchie said, "when they see their places, they're going to be devastated."

Tu-Uyen Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald

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