Water washes out homes, not hope
Minot, N.D. - Though the Souris River flood is now officially the biggest flood this city has ever seen and a quarter of its population has been displaced, there were glimmers of hope on Friday.
The projected crest will still be much higher than the record flood of 1881, but the National Weather Service has reduced it by nearly a foot since Friday morning.
North Dakota's congressional delegation said the Obama administration and many members of Congress have pledged support for the stricken city of 41,000, the state's fourth largest, and surrounding communities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency seemed amenable to offering aid to individual residents of Minot, according to one official.
The state's congressional delegation, along with Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman, took an aerial tour of the flood on Friday. Zimbelman reported seeing only rooftops above the water.
"It's really tough to see," said Sen. John Hoeven, who is originally from Minot. "I see homes of people I've known since I was a little kid, places that I've been many, many times in the city and outside the city - and now they're underwater."
"We fought these floods. We fought them in '69; we fought them in '73, in '76," he said. "So now to see these homes in the water, it's really tough. Your heart goes out to all these great people."
Before all this, the highest the Souris River ever reached was in 1881 when it was at 1,558 feet above sea level at the point where the National Weather Service's Broadway bridge river gauge is now. The river reached that level again at 11 a.m. on Friday, according to the gauge.
The weather service is projecting the river will crest at 1,563.6 feet at 1 a.m. Sunday, about a foot lower than its last projection.
As of 4 p.m. Friday, the river level was at 1,559.8 feet, having risen more than 2 feet since noon.
'End is in sight'
"The end is in sight," said Lt. Col. Kendall Bergman, who heads the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' St. Paul district.
He at talking about the receding waters of the Souris River at the Sherwood river gauge upstream of here near the Canadian border. The crest, which is the greatest volume of water in the river, was reached early Friday morning in Sherwood on its way to Minot.
Between the border and Minot is Lake Darling, the flood-control reservoir controlled by the corps. Knowing the duration of the crest gives the corps the confidence to reduce the flow out of the lake without fear that some even greater volume of water isn't on its way to max out the capacity of the lake. That's what's responsible for the lower crest in Minot.
But all that could change if there is more rain.
"We are watching the weather very closely," Zimbelman said. "Our greatest concern is thunderstorms over the Des Lacs River basin."
The Des Lacs drains into the Souris upstream of Minot in the town of Burlington. The chance of a thunderstorm in that area today is about 50 percent, according to the weather service.
Burlington officials tried to build a secondary set of dikes high enough to keep back the waters of both rivers but threw in the towel Thursday and begin evacuations after river levels rose too high and too fast.
Downstream of Minot, the flood fight continues.
"We're feeling confident," said Cy Kotaska, mayor of Sawyer, population 360. He expected contractors to finish raising the levees Friday evening or this morning, he said, expressing renewed hope after hearing the lower crest prediction in Minot.
In Velva, population 1,100, city leaders asked the governor to mandate evacuation of most of the city, which sits entirely in the Souris flood plain at the point at which it turns north to head back into Canada, said city spokeswoman Maria Effertz Hanson. Contractors continue to build up its levees, though, and they should be done this afternoon or Sunday.
'People are with us'
"One of the things people have said to me is, 'How can it be, senator, that you've had to evacuate 11,000 or 12,000 and that there are only several hundreds in shelters?' and we've said to them, 'Families and friends,' " said Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "That's what's made the difference here."
He said dozens of his colleagues in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans have pledged to help the city get through the disaster. The White House has pledged a full federal response, he said, and Air Force leaders have pledged to bring the resources of Minot Air Force Base to bear.
"People are with us, they're watching, and they are deeply impressed at how you're conducting yourselves here in Minot and the wider community," he said.
Conrad, Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., offered words of praise and some hope during their visit to Minot Friday.
The delegation is waiting now to see if FEMA will offer individual assistance, meaning, among other things, housing aid for the displaced residents who make up a quarter of Minot's population and residents of surrounding communities.
On Friday morning, the delegation spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, who oversees FEMA. She hasn't promised anything other than that she wouldn't leave the building until giving the White House a recommendation.
"The sense I got from her is I think she will recommend individual assistance for Minot," Hoeven said. "We tried to impress on her that other counties should be included as well. I don't know how far she'll go with that."
Tu-Uyen Tran writes for the Grand Forks Herald