N.D. Town Struggles To Stay On Top Of Flooding

Originally published on June 28, 2011 7:55 pm
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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Susan Stamberg, good morning.

The Souris River is cresting today in the flood-battered town of Minot, North Dakota. The water has topped more than six feet above major flood levels, breaking a record set back in 1881. Ten thousand residents have been forced out of their homes, and National Guardsmen continue reinforcing temporary dikes and levees.

NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

(Soundbite of machinery)

CARRIE KAHN: Minot's City Hall is still dry, and up and running. With the help of pumps and a huge earthen levee along the side of the building, the river is being held back. But the street below, a school and several homes are all under water.

Erik Hobbs came to check out the flooding.

Mr. ERIK HOBBS: I've lived here my whole life, and to see where I grew up underwater is really - I am lucky enough to live on a hill, but the blue house back there is someone I know, and their house is completely gone. Completely gone. I don't know how people are going to come back from that.

KAHN: Thousands of homes have been lost. Downtown is closed, and the regional hospital is threatened. The city's drinking water system may have been contaminated, and residents have been warned to boil all water.

At a press conference at City Hall, Mayor Curt Zimbelman says this has been the toughest flood fight he's ever been in.

Mayor CURT ZIMBELMAN (Minot, North Dakota): Some points, it's overwhelming. We're doing everything that we possibly can do to survive this thing. I'm praying everything will be OK.

KAHN: The stress could be seen on congressman Rick Berg's face as he tried to tell a story about his family.

Representative RICK BERG (Republican, North Dakota): I called my wife this afternoon, and my 11-year-old son got on the phone and - sorry.

KAHN: Berg broke down, then finished saying his son had told him to offer up their house to displaced residents.

Rep. BERG: Especially if there is someone elderly who doesn't have a place to stay. You know, we're five hours away, so I don't know if that would work. But that's what we do in North Dakota. That's what people do.

KAHN: That generosity was evident in the city's two shelters, opened up to take in evacuees. Residents, even those whose homes were damaged, had come to volunteer; donate food, toys and handcrafted quilts.

Fay Nelson was handing out small stuffed animals. A shy 2-year-old grabbed a bunny from Nelson's bag.

Ms. FAY NELSON (Shelter Volunteer): The bunny will help you sleep. OK?

KAHN: Nelson said she just wanted to do something, no matter how small the gesture.

Ms. NELSON: It's good to help others, if you can.

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. NELSON: It makes me feel good. I feel bad for them.

KAHN: While 10,000 people have been evacuated from Minot, only about 250 are staying in the shelters. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple says he's not surprised there aren't more people here.

Governor JACK DALRYMPLE (Republican, North Dakota): They're very resourceful. They're very self-sufficient. And they don't, you know, think of themselves as dependent.

KAHN: And many were trying to make the best of the tragic situation.

Mr. DALE LEGRAND: I got a T-shirt over here. I'd like you to autograph it, if you could.

Gov. DALRYMPLE: Yeah, Id be happy to.

KAHN: Dale LeGrand was busy making a memorial flood T-shirt. He wasn't shy about asking everyone to sign it, even the governor.

Gov. DALRYMPLE: I'm writing: Dale, best of luck now - Governor. There you go. I hope I didn't take up too much room there.

Mr. LEGRAND: That's fine, sir.

Gov. DALRYMPLE: Where do you live?

KAHN: LeGrand and his wife left their home when the evacuation orders were given last Tuesday. They don't know if their house is flooded or not, but they're pretty sure it is.

Bennie and Heidi Brown know their home is gone. They've seen the water up to the roof. They've lost everything, and have been in the shelter for the past five days.

Mr. BENNIE BROWN: It's bad, you know? Especially - I don't know what we are going to do. My job is underwater.

Ms. HEIDI BROWN: I'm exhausted. I don't know whether to cry, to scream, you know. My husband and I snap at each other for stupid, little things because we're both stressed out.

KAHN: Back outside the shelter, looking at the river rage by, resident Erik Hobbs says cleaning up Minot is going to be rough.

Mr. HOBBS: You can fix the house. But can you fix someone's broken spirit? That's going to be the hard part.

KAHN: The river may have crested here, but it will take days before the waters even begin to recede. Then residents will get a look at just how much of their town they can salvage.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Minot, North Dakota. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.