Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Minot residents evacuate as historic rise in Souris River approaches

Some still call it a flood fight. It isn't.
Minot was a city in full retreat Tuesday. Many Minoters were moving as many possessions as possible out of homes, apartments and businesses through snarled traffic and muddy streets. Others surrendered, resigned to accept whatever emotional pain and physical damage the relentless Souris River chooses to inflict. All indications are it will be substantial.
"What I see right now is probably the most devastating in terms of the number of people directly impacted and what it will do to damage homes as water begins to overtop the levees and fill in behind," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, North Dakota National Guard, during a late Tuesday afternoon press conference at City Hall.
Sprynczynatyk has been involved in flood fighting for 40 years.
"I think this is going to be tough in terms of impact to the community as a whole, for Minot, Ward County and communities all up and down the river," added Sprynczynatyk.
The sheer numbers are staggering: Saskatchewan reservoirs releasing water at a rate of 28,000 cubic feet per second Tuesday morning. Lake Darling to release 15,000 cfs by Thursday morning, with an expected high release rate of 20,000 cfs later in the week. An expected high river level of 1,563 feet at Minot's Broadway Bridge, down slightly from Monday's projected crest.
A portion of Tuesday's press conference was devoted to the almost macabre discussion of when the levees within the city would be topped and how Civil Defense sirens would be used to warn citizens to "head for high ground." Mayor Curt Zimbelman announced that the deadline for those in mandatory evacuation zones was moved up to 6 p.m. today instead of the previously announced 10 p.m.
"Public safety is paramount," said Zimbelman.
The statement was made at a time when the snarling Souris was readying for its final push over the top of what, a few days ago, appeared to be a solid answer to the swirling river.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued an expected mandatory evacuation for all points along the Souris in Ward County. Residents upstream of Minot were told to be out of their homes by noon today, those downstream of Minot by 6 p.m.
"It is strictly a matter of public safety," said Dalrymple.
Dalrymple pledged that all of the state's resources have been made available to Minot and Ward County residents. Sprynczynatyk added that a C-130 transport plane was en route from Louisiana carrying 10,000 linear feet of "strap bags" and was due to arrive in the city late Tuesday night. The "strap bags" hold a huge amount of fill and will be dropped by helicopter in an effort to keep the Third Street viaduct, a critical traffic artery in the city, open during high water.
According to Public Works Director Alan Walter, the bags would be placed from near the north end of Minot's Main Street and generally follow the railroad tracks to the Third Street viaduct. Other secondary diking efforts were said to be under consideration by city officials, but it was conceded that time and rising water would likely prevent complete implementation.
"We plan secondary dikes in the fringe areas and will continue working until the water pushes us out of the area," said Zimbelman.
"It's pretty ugly. We expect dikes to be overtopped, the river channel dikes, pretty much by 7 a.m. Thursday," said Alan Schlag, National Weather Service hydrologist in Bismarck.
Noting that the Souris is destined to reach a level where its ravenous performance has never before been charted, Schlag warned that bleak prediction was plus or minus six or seven hours.
"The travel time for water is faster than we've ever seen before," said Schlag. "Until it breaks out, it won't slow down. The latest outlook is a little less than what we had before, but it is still way above existing flood protection for the city of Minot."
In a city deluged by several weeks of discussion about cubic feet per second, reservoir storage and how to convert metric readings into something more understandable, the flow in the Souris was losing its lustre as vital information. For many in the city, the expected height of the river is now judged to be either at the kitchen countertops or up to the rain gutters.
Flows out of Saskatchewan reservoirs were said to have reached 28,000 cfs Tuesday morning, an astonishing amount of water for a normally placid river regulated by no less than four strategically placed dams. Flows out of Lake Darling were reduced to 8,000 cfs Tuesday. Higher flows would have likely flooded the city during an unprecedented rush to evacuate.
Nevertheless, the water will come.
The volume pouring down the Souris River Valley will prove to be an enormous test for Lake Darling Dam, where release are scheduled to hit 15,000 cfs by Thursday, generally considered more than enough to deliver a toppling blow to Minot and other points on the river. Sarcastically, the Souris in on target to deliver a follow-up knockout punch a few hours later.
"The forecast for flows have gone up for Lake Darling," said Schlag. "Now you are looking at roughly a 20,000 cfs discharge."
Emotionally drained Minoters looking to the future, wondering when they can return to their homes, may be in for a long wait.
"To get back below the misery stage, with all the damage that will be done to dikes, I suspect we'll need to get down below 5,000 cfs," said Schlag. "Water is going to be running on the wrong side of the dikes in Minot for two weeks. That's a really long time. I don't think the river will be below even 6,000 cfs until the 11th, 12th or 13th of July."

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