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Betty Gehlhoff helps her husband, Bill, who is blind, step up onto a curb after Bill used a portable restroom across the street Monday in Valley City. The couple is staying at a hotel in Jamestown after being evacuated from their Valley City rental house because of flooding. They returned to Valley City on Monday to have their van repaired. (Mike Nowatzki/The Forum)

Valley City adjusts to life with no sanitary sewer

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Valley City adjusts to life with no sanitary sewer
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

VALLEY CITY, N.D. - Monte Anderson stayed home from work all of last week so he could move the furniture, deep freezers and other items out of his basement in case the Sheyenne River breaches the dike near his house here.

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On Monday, the John Deere Seeding Group employee was told that he has this week off, too - a major financial hit for the husband and father of two.

"Definitely, definitely," he said.

But Anderson said he understood why Mayor Mary Lee Nielson on Monday ordered nonessential businesses to stay closed this week after a major failure Friday in the city's sanitary sewer system.

"They're doing a hell of a good job," he said of city leaders. "Proud of 'em for a little town like this."

The mayor said she is "painfully aware" of sacrifices made by local residents, businesses, schools and others institutions.

But shuttering nonessential businesses at least through Friday is necessary to keep residents out of harm's way - and out of the way of emergency workers - and to minimize strain on the taxed sewer system, she said.

"We have weighed the potential consequences of this decision against the consequences of doing nothing and concluded that we must come down on the side of public safety," she said.

The Sheyenne remains at historically high levels - 19.7 feet as of 5 p.m. Monday, just below the previous record of 20 feet in 1882 - and it will likely be eight to 10 days before the threat of significant flooding has passed, Nielson said.

The sewer main that collapsed Friday was a "devastating blow" to the city, she said. The city has stopped the flow of sewage into the Sheyenne, but it hasn't stopped river water from flowing into the sanitary sewer system, leaving the main lift station with no capacity to move sewage to the lagoon, she said.

Residents who didn't follow the city's voluntary evacuation order last week are still being told not to flush toilets or pour anything down the drain.

It's been an adjustment for those who stayed behind, including Anderson, who's making sure his sump pump doesn't quit.

He's taking sponge baths, using paper plates and the portable restroom standing on his boulevard, one of about 450 spread throughout the city. His wife and daughter drove 45 miles last weekend to shower and do laundry.

Gov. John Hoeven toured the city Monday and said its leaders are doing everything they can to keep water out of the city.

"If they can do that, businesses are going to be up and running a lot sooner," he said.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., a Valley City native, said it was a "sickening sight" to see businesses closed Monday morning, but it's better than having neighborhoods inundated.

"It's a tradeoff worth making," he said.

Essential businesses being allowed to stay open are hospitals and clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores, gas stations and hardware stores.

It's not known how many residents remain in the city or when evacuees will be encouraged to return.

Officials will re-evaluate the situation on Friday, Nielson said.

Betty Gehlhoff returned to Valley City on Monday with her husband, Bill, who is blind, to have their minivan repaired.

The gray-haired couple, who celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year, have been staying at a motel in Jamestown since being evacuated twice last week from two homes in Valley City.

"It's been hard," said Betty, who noted their daughter is mentally challenged.

"She takes good care of me," Bill said, patting his wife's arm.

Keith Hovland, general manager of John Deere Seeding Group, which has about 320 employees, said he has customers waiting for air seeders, "and we're shut down. It's painful." However, he said clearing the city of business traffic will make it easier for officials to monitor the dikes keeping the city safe.

"It is really important that we pitch in," he said.

Rich Scheuneman, flood engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, urged residents to remain vigilant and reminded them that emergency levees are still under a lot of pressure.

"This is just unprecedented, the length of this flood fight," he said.

Valley City public schools are closed this week, and Superintendent Dean Koppelman said the Maple Valley and Barnes County North school districts each have an estimated 30 to 40 Valley City students taking classes at their schools this week.

Students in grades seven through 12 also may register for online classes.

Valley City School Board President Sharon Buhr asked parents for patience and understanding.

"We're totally constrained," she said. "It isn't that we don't want to have school."

Elsewhere in Barnes County, the Tomahawk Dam near Rogers failed due to erosion early Monday, but the water released won't have a major impact on the Sheyenne at Valley City, Scheuneman said.

The eroding Clausen Springs Dam near Kathryn has been stabilized, and residents are being allowed to return to their homes, he said.

Officials say federal assistance available

Valley City businesses that sustain economic hardship from the mandatory closure of nonessential businesses will be able to apply for loan assistance through the Small Business Administration, said Ed Conley of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Businesses are asked to call (800) 659-2955.

Disaster unemployment assistance also is available as a result of a presidential disaster declaration.

The assistance has broader eligibility rules than regular unemployment assistance, including those who are self-employed, Conley said. For more information, call (701) 328-1630.

For general disaster aid eligibility questions, call FEMA at (800) 621-3362.

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