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Troubled Dam Still Threatens North Dakota Town

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BURLINGTON, N.D. (AP) — Some residents in a development along the bloated Des Lacs River brushed off warnings to evacuate ahead of a possible dam break, choosing to stay behind and shore up or pump out their homes.

About 30 homes in the small town of Burlington near Minot, in northwest North Dakota, were at risk of severe damage from what officials called a “high potential” the aging dam would wash out. About 200 people had been advised to head to higher ground.

“Some of them are and some of them aren’t,” Fire Chief Karter Lesmann said. “We can’t make them leave, we can only suggest it.”

Authorities on Wednesday considered dropping half-ton sandbags from a National Guard helicopter to shore up the dam that stands between the endangered homes and the river. But state Homeland Security Director Greg Wilz called it a “crapshoot,” because engineers say the sandbags could do more harm than good.

“At this stage of the game, it’s more art than science,” Wilz said.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood watch for the area on the western edge of Burlington, a city of about 1,200 people, saying a dam failure could lead to 3-foot rise in the river. The agency said Thursday that the watch was in effect through Saturday night.

Authorities placed a video camera on the dam to monitor water levels and were prepared to immediately contact affected residents if the structure burst.

After touring the area, Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he was “amazed” at the flooding conditions.

“I wish we could say with certainty what’s going to happen in the next day or so,” he told worried residents in a packed Burlington City Hall.

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 an hour west of Fargo, where the Sheyenne River was coming in higher and faster than expected.

Dalrymple and other state officials were traveling to Valley City on Thursday to get an update on the flood response. A meeting to inform the public about conditions was planned at City Hall.

The dirt-and-rock Burlington Dam No. 1 was built in the 1930s for irrigation and 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.

Todd Sando, an engineer with the state of North Dakota, said “there is a very high potential it could wash out.”

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.

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.

In Fargo, the river level was down more than a foot from Saturday’s crest. The National Guard was being called off levee patrol and officials were removing some clay dikes.

Fargo officials say five homes were damaged in 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.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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