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Erik Burgess, Published June 21 2013

Valley City cleaning up after deluge

VALLEY CITY, N.D. – When Renee Whitlock returned home from work late Thursday night, she saw water pooling near her home, but the pit was obscured by darkness.

She rushed inside to avoid the pouring rain that was pummeling Valley City and the surrounding area all night.

Whitlock laid her head down for bed about 11:30 p.m., unaware that while she was at work, the ground directly beneath her bedroom had opened up and swallowed her basement whole.

Whitlock awoke to find a pit of mud and grass extending out from under her home where the ground had caved in.

The soaked, destroyed contents of her basement were in plain sight.

“I heard little cracks here and there, but I didn’t think anything of it. I mean, my house cracks,” Whitlock said. “But I didn’t realize it was this bad.”

Thursday night’s rain flooded basements, tossed debris across town and seriously damaged the Valley City State University campus.

And the National Weather Service says more storms are expected through the weekend.

Mayor Bob Werkhoven said the last time the city had a rainstorm deluge like this was in 1993.

Most of the homes on Whitlock’s block Friday morning had several feet of water pooling in their basements. The neighborhood is a low point in the town, Whitlock said. Water pooled there and had nowhere to drain but into homes.

“It could have been worse,” she said. “I could have woke up in the basement this morning. Or not woke up at all.”

City was ‘overwhelmed’

Valley City received 6.78 inches of rain Thursday night, most of it falling in two to three hours, said Jennifer Ritterling, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, citing a rain gauge about 2 miles northwest of the city.

Slippery, black mud caked many streets and sidewalks Friday morning. Several inches of gravel and debris were left behind by rushing water in roads, leaving some impassable. A no-travel advisory issued for the city was mostly lifted by Friday morning, the mayor said.

While Thursday’s flash flood is “comparable” to the 1993 event, the mayor said there’s one important difference: The sewer system didn’t back up this time, thanks to improvements the city has made, Werkhoven said

One of the city’s storm sewer lift stations did go down late Thursday night after it was hit by lightning, he said.

That flooded the streets with storm water, which “overwhelmed” the sanitary sewers, forcing the city to put a total restriction on shower and toilet use in the morning. The ban was lifted by late Friday morning, but the city still encouraged residents to be “conservative” with water use.

With the sewer system overworked, Werkhoven said the city had to dump sewage straight into the Sheyenne River. It’s an emergency procedure the city has taken before during major flood events, he said.

“We have to notify the (state) health department and that’s all you can do,” Werkhoven said. “You have to weigh pumping it into the river … versus letting it come up into people’s basements.”

The city’s landfill will be open today and Sunday, and the city won’t charge residents for the removal of flood-damaged materials, he said.

‘I couldn’t believe it’

As the rain was pouring Thursday night, Brian Mindt noticed a whirlpool beginning to swirl on the sidewalk in front of his downtown shop, Iron Stallion Cycles.

So Mindt, 52, grabbed a large scrap of carpet and tossed it in, in an attempt to block the flow. The scrap was sucked down into the dirt.

Moments later, the earth under the sidewalk gave way, and water from the street rushed into the basement through the shop’s old coal chute. It gushed into the basement like a geyser, Mindt said.

“I saw that water shooting out. I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “It shot out about 8 feet before it hit the floor.”

A nearly-full freezer in the basement was “bobbing around like a fish bobber,” he said.

Most of the water was gone by late Friday morning, but a foot of gravel and debris remained in the basement. Mindt estimated he had at least $75,000 in damage to his inventory. His insurance, he said, likely wouldn’t cover it.

“They call it ‘seepage.’ They don’t cover that,” he said.

Crews at “The Bubble” – Valley City State University’s Osmon Fieldhouse – also worked Friday to clear out 7 inches of water that flooded the basement.

Carpeted locker rooms and wood paneling in the weight room was heavily damaged by water, said Patrick Horner, assistant director of facilities for the university.

Rainwater also overwhelmed the flat roof of the complex, rushing through ceiling tiles and flooding a first-floor classroom with about an inch of water, Horner said.

“It was a major, major mess,” he said.

Rain also swept into open construction areas at the campus’s science building, a portion of which was being remodeled, Horner said. He had no estimate on total damage to the campus, but said it would be “a fair amount.”

The city’s police station had a basement full of water on Friday morning, said Police Chief Fred Thompson. City Hall’s first floor also took on water as it rushed past and bled through cracks in the doorways.

More storms expected

The Weather Service’s Ritterling said southeastern North Dakota will experience “another couple rounds” of stormy weather this weekend.

“It looks active. It’s severe,” she said of a system moving out of the northern Rocky Mountains.

The Sheyenne River was also high Friday, but despite the forecast, Werkhoven said he wasn’t worried about the river.

“We’re monitoring that,” he said.

Whitlock, whose basement caved in, is going to live with her sister. She said her flood insurance should cover the damage, but she’s been kicked out of the house because the city deemed it unstable.

She began to sob when she recalled what she lost – photos of children and grandchildren, family memorabilia and important documents.

“Everything you can think of, I’ve got it down there,” she said. “My clothes I had down in the washroom, getting ready to wash them. They’re all gone. So I’m just going to be living by the seat of my pants, really.”

Still, she remained optimistic.

“I was downsizing, so I guess God helped me,” she said.


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Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518