BURLINGTON, N.D. (AP) – The Des Lacs River’s slow decline took the pressure off a fragile dam and the people who live nearest it, with most of the evacuees in a 30-home development filtering back home to turn their attention to cleanup and flooded basements.
Fire Chief Karter Lesmann said the neighborhood wasn’t in the clear yet, but cooler weather had slowed runoff from snow lingering in the area, leaving him optimistic.
“It’s really looking good for us right now,” Lesmann said Thursday evening. Just two days after an estimated 25 of the houses had been evacuated, Lesmann said all but five to 10 homeowners had returned.
Water levels had fallen more than a foot and the river had retreated from overflowed banks by about 3 feet compared with a day earlier, state and local officials said. Water behind the troubled Burlington Dam No. 1 was down by about a half-foot, and the dam was holding steady, said Todd Sando, North Dakota’s state engineer.
Flooding fears eased elsewhere in North Dakota, too. A 30-mile stretch of Interstate 29 reopened north of Fargo after being closed by overland flooding, and to Fargo’s west, officials said Valley City appeared poised to escape flooding from the Sheyenne River after raising its levees.
In Burlington, the strength of the 77-year-old dam has been suspect for decades, but this year’s flooding has spurred a need to either repair the dam or intentionally breach it by next spring, Sando said.
The dam was built in the 1930s for irrigation and to provide water to homesteaders. Officials said the reservoir behind it no longer serves either purpose. Sando said draining the reservoir through a planned breach would relieve the pressure, but areas nearby might still be susceptible in flood years.
For now, authorities are watching the ailing structure with remote video cameras, fearing that any attempt to shore up the dam — or even walk across it — could cause it to collapse.
About 1,200 people live in Burlington, located about eight miles northwest of Minot. Those in most immediate danger are on the west edge of town, and Lesmann said the risk to the rest of the city was “very, very minimal.”
Warnings would be issued by a reverse 911 telephone system if the dam fails, Lesmann said.
Sando said any breach would be slowed by an adjacent railroad bridge before water would hit homes. He said no homes would be in danger of being swept away from the current.
Jennifer Olonia and her husband, Matt, have remained at their home to try to save it from the bloated river, which has made its way into their basement. They worried about not being able to hear emergency telephone calls because of noise from vacuum cleaners and sump pumps that are being used to suck water from their home.
“We’re doing what we got to do,” Jennifer Olonia said, filling a 10-gallon shop-vac every minute or so Thursday. “It’s sludge, mud and yuck and more sludge, mud and yuck. It’s a mess.”
Olonia, a plumber, and his wife, a restaurant cook, have taken off work the past several days to save their home. Their heater has been swamped by floodwater so the couple has been running their oven with the door open for heat. Temperatures were in the mid-20s Thursday morning.
The river had receded several feet on the Olonias’ property in less than a day, though a beaver was swimming in floodwater that had been their yard. They still worry a dam break could ruin their home despite sandbag fortifications.
“We’re hoping we have enough clearance to handle a breach,” she said. “But nobody knows.”
Authorities had considered dropping half-ton sandbags from a National Guard helicopter to shore up the dam. But state engineers said the sandbags could do more harm than good.
The Olonias and others are frustrated that nothing had been done.
“They should be doing something, because something is better than nothing,” Jennifer Olonia said.
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