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Hundreds of ND homes evacuated

Bismarck prepares for expected Sunday crest of flood-swollen Missouri River.

BY JOHN PAPE | BISMARCK, ND | June 11, 2011

"I really felt for those folks; their entire homes were swamped. I just hope they saved family stuff that canít be replaced"

—Sean Johnson, North Dakota Department of Emergency Services

Residents of this North Dakota city were trying to keep water from their homes as the flood-swollen Missouri River continued to rise this week. By Friday night, more than 800 homes had been evacuated.

National Guard troops are patrolling the city's dikes for leaks while some evacuated residents are now using boats to check on their homes or to ferry fuel for generators pumping water from basements.

Disaster response organizations, including the Salvation Army, are providing support to flood survivors.

Spawned by a heavier-than-usual spring thaw coupled with above-average precipitation, the flood crest has raised the level of concern in communities across the upper Midwest accustomed to some degree of annual flooding.

One of the largest rivers in the nation, the Missouri rises in the Rocky Mountains of southwestern Montana and runs more than 2,300 miles until it empties into the Mississippi River near St. Louis. Along the way, it runs through or serves as a border for the states of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and Missouri.

By the end of the week, floodwaters were swamping numerous flood-prone neighborhoods in Bismarck.

Forecasters predicted the river may reach levels worse than those of the historic 2009 flood. The Missouri is expected to reach the 18-foot flood stage in Bismarck this weekend. Even after river crests, some degree of flooding was expected to continue for a month before residents will be able to “stand down.”

Prior to the arrival of the floodwaters, the community worked to build a 23-foot-high protective dike using sandbags. City employees, volunteers and more than 600 members of the National Guard worked to put the dike in place.

The Salvation Army has been on-site providing meals, snacks, water, and other services in collaboration with the American Red Cross since May 25.

Three Salvation Army mobile kitchens provided food and hydration for volunteers and relief workers at numerous locations throughout Bismarck and nearby Mandan.

The Red Cross provided shelter to evacuees.

The Salvation Army of the Twin Cities shipped pallets of water, snacks and 150 clean-up kits to assist in flood relief efforts.

The rising waters also prompted authorities to mobilize a makeshift armada of rescue boats to assist in the evacuation of those living in areas cut off by rapidly-rising floodwaters. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and wildlife agents used airboats, flat-bottom boats, Zodiac boats and patrol boats to move stranded residents.

Many evacuees were then transferred to all-terrain vehicles to make a circuitous trek across fields to safety since most subdivision and secondary roads had been cut off by rising waters. Most found temporary shelter provided by the Red Cross and some local churches.

A special search-and-rescue team stood at the ready to respond to calls for help within the flooded areas using boats, ATVs and large National Guard vehicles. Even a Blackhawk helicopter was on stand-by, if needed.

Sean Johnson, search and rescue coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, said the team was ready for almost anything.

"We have coordinated a very in-depth mix of capabilities," Johnson said.

Although officially discouraged, a number of local residents used their personal boats to search for residents needing help in flooded areas. Craig Hansen said he used his boat to check on friends who live in the Hoge Island area, north of Bismarck.

“Their house is surrounded by water, but they haven’t taken on any water yet. I tried to talk them into coming out with me, but they felt like they could ride out the crest without any water in the house,” Hansen said. “Their home is on a little high spot, so it’ll probably be one of the last to flood. I just hope they’re right; I hope it stops before they get flooded.”

Hansen said he saw other homes that had not fared as well.

“I really felt for those folks; their entire homes were swamped. I just hope they saved family stuff that can’t be replaced,” he said.

Hoge Island was one of the hardest hit parts of the Bismarck area, along well as portions of Burleigh and Morton counties.

On Thursday, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said floodwaters may prevent emergency crews from being able to respond into the area if anyone needed help.

Dalrymple also said President Barack Obama had approved his request to declare major portions of North Dakota a disaster area. A total of 42 counties, the Spirit Lake Nation, the Three Affiliated Tribes and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservations were all part of the disaster declaration. Counties declared disaster areas included Barnes, Benson, Billings, Bottineau, Burke, Burleigh, Cass, Cavalier, Dickey, Divide, Eddy, Foster, Grand Forks, Grant, Griggs, Kidder, LaMoure, Logan, McHenry, McIntosh, McLean, Mercer, Morton, Mountrail, Nelson, Pembina, Pierce, Ramsey, Ransom, Renville, Richland, Rolette, Sargent, Sheridan, Steele, Stutsman, Towner, Traill, Walsh, Ward, Wells and Williams.

The presidential disaster declaration makes federal funding available to help state and local communities cover the costs of building levees and other measures taken to safeguard people and property from flooding. The declaration also makes federal assistance available to help cover the costs of flood mitigation efforts undertaken since February.

Also at the request of the governor, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers agreed to assist the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe with the construction of temporary measures to protect the community of Fort Yates from rising floodwaters.

Dalrymple made the request after meeting with Standing Rock Chairman Charles Murphy earlier this week. He then pressed Corps officials to tour the area and evaluate the community’s flooding risk. The governor also sent representatives from the North Dakota National Guard and the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services to the area to identify possible protective measures.

A key area of concern for the tribe was keeping the main road into Fort Yates open. Engineers determined waves going over the top of the causeway would result in possible erosion of the riprap over time. The Corps agreed to raise the riprap elevation on both sides of the causeway to ensure the main artery into the community remained open.

The Corps has also agreed to provide flood mitigation measures to protect the Sitting Bull monument and the Fort Yates water intake, a main source of water for the community.

While the North Dakota braced for the crest, floodwaters continue to take a toll upstream in parts of Montana. Communities along the Missouri River, along with a number of its tributaries, continue to experience flooding conditions. One such community, tiny Roundup, was swamped when the Musselshell River overflowed its banks and sent water cascading into homes and businesses for the second time in only two weeks.

Officials evacuated some 35 homes and businesses in the flood-prone southern part of the town of 2,000 people. A number of residents like Mike Balich expressed frustration over the repeated flooding. Balich’s home is only a couple of hundred yards from the river, near a levee that breached during the first round of flooding.

“We just had all this pumped out... What a waste of money,” Balich told reporters.

Downstream, the Coast Guard closed the Missouri River to all recreational traffic for 260 miles from where Iowa, Missouri and Nebraska meet to the Gavins Point Dam on the Nebraska-South Dakota border. Gavins Point is the southernmost dam on the Missouri.

The river was closed to protect both new levees and boaters, the Coast Guard said.

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