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Kurt Morton of the N.D. National Guard dishes up at the "High Water Cafe" in the Emergency Operations Center in Pembina as volunteer cook Gene Warner looks on Friday. (Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)

Pembina lunch counter serves home-cooked fare to flood fighter

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Pembina lunch counter serves home-cooked fare to flood fighter
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

PEMBINA, N.D. -- If anybody volunteered to walk the dikes in Pembina, N.D., as a way to shed some of those winter pounds, they better be marching right past the High Water Cafe.

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That's the name of the lunch counter at the Pembina Community Center, which serves as the local Emergency Operations Center for this community's 2009 flood fight.

For nine days now, volunteers from the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 77 have been serving up a 24-hour, seven-day buffet of savory homemade cooking that puts most restaurant Sunday smorgasbords to shame.

Pork chop dinners in the evening. A vast array of hot dishes the following day. Salads. Vegetables. And enough caramel rolls and other pastries to feed a small army, which is what the women of the American Legion Auxiliary have been doing.

The High Water Cafe has been part of Pembina's spring flood fight since 1996.

This year, the North Dakota National Guard has been stationed in this town of 600 for more than a week, pitching in to help local volunteers patrol earthen dikes along the Red River.

Too complacent?

Except for the presence of National Guard equipment, more than a dozen soldiers and other dike walkers, who carry on a friendly banter, visitors might not know that there's a flood happening on the other side of the floodwall and dikes protecting this community.

"People sometimes tell us we're too complacent," said John Feldman, Pembina City Council president and a member of the local flood committee. "We're not. We've been doing this for so many years, we know what to do. We react to the National Weather Service predictions and go from there."

The Red River was expected to crest in Pembina today at about 52.5 feet, well below the top of the permanent dike level of 57.3 feet. The river surpassed the 52-foot mark on Saturday.

10 evacuations

Fewer than 10 elderly residents voluntarily left town until the flood season is over.

That could be a while. Like other places in the Red River Valley, Pembina faces a probably second crest or an extended crest period that could last until late April.

The Pembina flood committee is hosting a meeting at 7 tonight in the remodeled Community Center.

"We were hoping we'd be crested by then," Feldman said. "We'll talk about what might be coming from the west. Our biggest concern is that it's going to be higher than this crest."

Overland flooding

Water is spreading overland all around Pembina, throughout Pembina and Kittson counties, surrounding ring dikes protecting rural homes and businesses.

Pembina County 55 was closed late last week between Neche, N.D., and the Interstate 29 interchange at Pembina.

The Pembina River, which flows from Manitoba past Walhalla, N.D., and Neche before emptying into the Red at Pembina, was well below flood stage over the weekend.

But the weather service is forecasting it could rise almost 10 feet -- to more than 19 feet -- by midweek. That would cause flooding in Neche and threaten N.D. Highway 18, the major entrance into the community.

"If we hit 19.6, then we could have some problems," said Scott Reck, flood coordinator for the city of Neche.

Still, flood fighters from Neche to Pembina are not overly concerned.

"We're keeping track of it," Feldman said. "We'll deal with it when it comes."

In the meantime, there's plenty of food and plenty of room to visit at Pembina's High Water Cafe.

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