Associated Press, Published May 24 2013
Evacuated residents of flood-threatened northeastern North Dakota city returning home
"It was scary," Thompson said. "But we fed the volunteer firemen before we left."
The city of Cavalier, about 80 miles north of Grand Forks, mostly cleared out Tuesday after five days of steady rain raised the level of the lake behind Renwick Dam on the Tongue River. Officials built an emergency levee to keep more water from overwhelming the dam about six miles west of the city, which would have flooded rural farmsteads and the community of 1,300.
Those who evacuated began returning home Friday, though officials cautioned that residents might have to leave again if things took a turn for the worse.
"We didn't dodge a bullet. ... (but) an artillery shell," Cavalier Mayor Kenneth Briese said shortly after the state Transportation Department reopened two state highways into the city. "We're very grateful we're not coming back to devastation."
The water was receding at a rate of more than an inch per hour, Pembina County Emergency Manager Andrew Kirking said. The lake, which rose by 17 feet before it peaked, had dropped about 5 feet by early Friday, Kirking said.
At Thompson's Cafe, several people counted their blessings over a ham-and-cheese omelet breakfast special, Thompson said.
"The water is going down in the dam but I don't think we're out of the woods yet," he said Friday.
The Tongue River continued to run high and fast, but sandbag levees held back the water. Dozens of National Guard soldiers helped to build the levees and monitor the flooding.
"Obviously, if the dam had breached, the sandbags wouldn't have been useful. They would have become decorations," Briese said. "Some (returning residents) don't realize what we went through, because the streets are dry. They should thank God for that."
Briese and Kirking said rain in this weekend's forecast was not expected to cause any problems.
North Dakota state engineer Todd Sando said construction began this spring on a $7 million renovation project for the Renwick Dam, built in 1961. Work included constructing an emergency spillway to protect the dam's integrity.
But then the rains came — nearly 10 inches over the past few days.
"It's the most water that has come down the Tongue River since record keeping," Sando said. "It was a bad time to have the biggest flood that they've seen."
The lifting of the evacuation order did not apply to about five dozen patients from a hospital, nursing home and assisted living facility in Cavalier. It could be a week or longer before they are allowed back home.
Residents were returning home in an orderly fashion Friday, Cavalier city attorney Neil Fleming said.
"A lot of people were scared and rightly so," Fleming said. "The town was dead — just like it was abandoned. Everybody is home now, cool and collected."
Businesses were reopening, too.
"I think life is back to normal when the Main Street cafe is open," Kirking said.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.