FARGO, N.D. (AP) — About 200 people who live near the Des Lacs River in northwest North Dakota have been advised to evacuate their homes because a dam might fail, though it did not appear that many had heeded the warning early Wednesday.
The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for the area on the west edge of Burlington, a city of about 1,200 people, saying a dam failure could lead to a 2-3 foot rise in the river. Assistant Police Chief Bill Hunt said he was not aware of anyone leaving their home yet, and that officials in a boat already have rescued one person whose home was surrounded by floodwaters.
It was a marked shift west for the North Dakota flood fight, after authorities in the Fargo area reported floodwaters were slowly dropping in rural areas hit with unprecedented overland flooding. Officials were quickly building up dikes in Valley City, about 50 miles west of Fargo, where the Sheyenne River was coming in higher and faster than expected.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple and other state officials were traveling to Burlington on Wednesday.
The dirt-and-rock Burlington Dam No. 1 was built in the 1930s to help control the river’s flow as it meets the Souris River and flows around Burlington. Authorities have been trying to plug holes in the dam with sandbags but can no longer access the site for safety reasons.
“We do expect a moderate to high risk that the dam will fail within the next 24 hours,” weather service meteorologist Ken Simosko told KCJB radio early Wednesday. “The problem is there’s no remote sensing or direct eyes on the dam to provide any forewarning.”
Hunt told The Associated Press that Federal Emergency Management Agency officials were bringing equipment to monitor the dam. Fire Chief Karter Lesmann said the city had about 3,000 sandbags on hand for use in the town.
An evacuation could become mandatory if the dam were to fail or if officials became certain it was about to fail, Hunt said. He said it was difficult to predict what sort of damage might result from a failure or how much time people would have to prepare for high water.
“It just depended on how it failed,” he said. “If it completely failed, probably not much time … if it eroded, we might have an hour or two.”
Robert Kibler and his wife, Alex Deufel, decided to leave their home near the river on Tuesday but returned Wednesday to move their collection of 7,000 books to a main floor.
“We really need a new dam,” said Kibler, who like his wife is a professor at Minot State University. “The one here is old. Hopefully this will spur someone to take action.”
Josh Ishmael and Will Mathews, who are in North Dakota working on an oil pipeline, said they had been shoring up their boss’s home with sandbags and a dike. They became stranded on the dike overnight this week and said they had to burn wood from a new deck on the home to keep warm, before authorities brought out a boat to rescue them.
“We’ve never seen anything like this in Oklahoma,” Ishmael said.
Hunt said officials have set up barriers they think will keep the city limits of Burlington safe from the Des Lacs River but that the high-flowing Souris could be a threat.
“That could back up into Burlington,” he said. “It’s so hard to say which way the water will go.”
Simosko said the Des Lacs River might begin to recede late Wednesday.
“Two days from now everything could be just fine and this just a bad memory,” Hunt said. “But if the dam breaks loose and water from the Souris backs up, it could be more of a problem.”
There were fewer problems reported in the Fargo area, where flooding from the Red River and its tributaries has left several rural residents isolated north and west of the city. Many roads in Cass County remained closed, including a large stretch of Interstate 29.
“Our intensity level is certainly down, but we continue to have minor flare-ups,” said Darrell Vanyo, Cass County commissioner.
The river level in Fargo on Wednesday morning was 37.4 feet, down from Saturday’s crest of 38.75. The National Guard was being called off levee patrol in the city and officials were removing some clay dikes.
Fargo officials say five homes sustained damage from the flood, most from pump failures.
An airboat team on standby in Cass County was being sent to Valley City, where the crest prediction for the Sheyenne River was bumped up by 2 feet and moved from Friday to Thursday.
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