Two Towns, Same Flooded River, Different Fates

Originally published on June 27, 2011 7:54 pm

The swollen Souris River in North Dakota is taking a toll on towns in the western part of the state. Residents in two towns along the river — Velva and Burlington — have put up a herculean effort to stop the floodwaters.

One town has succeeded in that fight while the other has not.

The Souris crested early on Monday through the town of Velva. Roland Hanborg with the Army Corp of Engineers said that at the crest, a grove of 50-foot-tall trees toppled under the weight of all the rushing water.

"About every 15-20 minutes a tree would go down and just come crashing down," Hanborg says.

But the levees held and not one house was lost in Velva.

Homeowner Keith Cederstrom says practically the whole town was on those levees, sandbagging as fast as they could.

"Most of us were running about 20 hours a day there for a few days there. I slept pretty good last night; my buddies put me up in their place on the top of the hill there," Cederstrom says.

In City Hall, right next to fire station, Mayor Ken Fox looks relaxed, chatting with volunteers taking a break. Fox says the town put up a tremendous fight. Early Sunday, right before the crest, one section of the levee started to erode.

"It was really a touch-and-go kind of thing, and I thought 'My gosh, if we had worked this hard,' " Fox says.

Crews scrambled to dump rocks and more dirt in the section and cover it with plastic. The crest came through and the levee held. Fox said he knew the town would be fine. "And then it was just a great feeling. I can't describe it," Fox says.

About 75 miles upstream, Burlington Mayor Jerome Gruenberg is also searching for words as he surveys his town in a boat.

"I don't know, it's just hard to describe. Nobody would believe this if they couldn't come and see it," Gruenberg says.

Water is up to the shingles of most houses. There is a boat on the roof of one. Trailers have slipped off foundations and are floating sideways.

Burlington Fire Chief Karter Lessman says the water is 20 feet deep in some spots. Lessman says the town fought as hard as it could for five straight days. Each day they got word that more water was coming, so they built the levees higher. But the water came faster than they could build.

"We said we can rebuild houses but we can't rebuild people, so we quit at that time, got everyone off the dike and six hours after that we had water running over," Lessman says.

Six more hours and the town was underwater. The sewers are ruined and so is the drinking water system. Lessman says if they had just had one more day, he thinks they could have built those levees high enough.

Gruenberg says his call to the Army Corps didn't bring help in time.

"When they finally saw how serious this was then they came to help. By then it was too late," Gruenberg says.

It's going to be a while before the water recedes. And then Gruenberg says his town will band together once again and rebuild it.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

NPR's Carrie Kahn has the tale of two towns on the river. Residents in both put up a Herculean effort to stop the floodwaters. One town succeeded, the other didn't.

CARRIE KAHN: The Souris crested early this morning through the town of Velva.

M: Everybody ready? Count of three. One, two...

KAHN: National Guard Sergeant Kim Unruh and her crew were still laying plastic sheeting and sandbagging the dirt levees.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC SHEETING)

KAHN: Roland Hamborg with the Army Corps of Engineers says at the crest, a grove of 50-foot-tall trees toppled under the weight of all the rushing water.

M: About every 15, 20 minutes, a tree would go down and just come crashing down.

KAHN: Homeowner Keith Cederstrom says practically the whole town was on those levees, sandbagging as fast as they could.

M: Most of us were running about 20 hours a day there for a few days. I slept pretty good last night. My buddies put me up in their place on the top of the hill, so...

KAHN: In city hall, right next to the fire station, Mayor Ken Fox looks relaxed, chatting with volunteers taking a break. Long plastic tables are filled with fruit, pizza, cookies and brownies. Fox says the town put up one hell of a fight. Early yesterday, right before the crest, one section of the levee started to erode.

M: It was really a touch-and-go kind of thing, and I thought, my gosh, if we had worked this hard.

KAHN: Crews scrambled to dump rocks and more dirt in the section and cover it with plastic. The crest came through and the levee held. Fox said he knew the town would be fine.

M: It was just a great feeling. You know, it's - I can't describe it.

KAHN: About 75 miles upstream, the mayor of Burlington, Jerome Gruenberg, is also searching for words as he surveys his town in a boat.

M: I don't know. It's just hard to describe. I mean, nobody would believe this if they couldn't come and see it.

KAHN: Water is up to the shingles of most houses. There is a boat on the roof of one home. Trailers have slipped off foundations and are floating sideways.

M: You can see in this next house where there's furniture floating around inside and...

KAHN: Burlington's fire chief, Karter Lesmann, says the water is 20 feet deep in some spots.

M: Cherry Street's right behind us. Right under the eye-line wire is Cherry. That's the street sign for Willow and Elm.

KAHN: You couldn't see the sign under the water and we drove right over the top. Lesmann says the town fought as hard as it could for five straight days. Each day, they got word that more water was coming, so they built the levees higher. But the water came faster than they could build.

M: We said we can rebuild houses, but we can't rebuild people, so we quit at that time, got everybody off the dike. And six hours after that, we had water running over cold.

KAHN: Mayor Gruenberg says his call to the Army Corps of Engineers didn't bring help in time.

M: When they finally saw how serious this was, then they came to help. By then, it was too late.

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