MINOT, N.D. — Geese and airboats on patrol shared the flooded streets of Minot on Friday as the Souris River thundered toward a record flood, rising so quickly that its progress could be seen inching up the side of homes in the North Dakota city.
The Souris was expected to break a more than century-old record at some point Friday, then go as much as 6 or 7 feet higher over the weekend, fed by heavy rain upstream and water releases from Canadian reservoirs.
North Dakota's fourth-largest city expected widespread flood damage, and as many as 10,000 residents, about one-fourth of the city's population, were ordered from their homes earlier this week. Crews focused on protecting critical infrastructure to avoid an expanded evacuation.
"We don't like to lose," Capt. Jeff Hoffer, an Army National Guard officer, said during a tour of flooded areas Friday. "This is very disheartening. I feel badly for all the people."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched four boats on Friday to patrol flooded neighborhoods, ready to respond to 911 calls. City officials said no injuries or incidents had been reported overnight. The evacuation zone was empty except for emergency officials and the geese, who paddled in about 5 feet of water washing down the streets.
George Moe, whose house was about a block from the water's edge, returned briefly to pick up some keys. Moe said the only thing left in his house was the mounted head of an antelope shot by his wife, who died about three years ago.
Moe, 63, said he had lived in the house for 40 years. He worried about it as well as the shop where he works as a mechanic; it was taking on water and he was unsure he'd have a job after the flood.
"I hate to see something go to hell after 40 years," he said. "There ain't much you can do."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Thursday accelerated water releases from the upstream Lake Darling dam. In just four days, the predicted release of water from the dam more than doubled — from 11,000 cubic feet per second to 29,000. National Weather Service hydrologist Steve Buan laid the blame on 4 to 6 inches of rain that fell last week in largely rural — and saturated — areas to the north.
With peak water levels expected Saturday or Sunday, Minot officials said they have done everything they can to protect critical infrastructure. Mayor Curt Zimbelman said dikes have been raised as much as possible around the city's sewer lift station and can't be raised any higher. The city was confident the water treatment plant was protected.
"We need to hope that they hold," Zimbelman said.
The city issued a voluntary evacuation notice Thursday to 400 more people in the river valley, although officials said damage to those homes might be no more than water in basements.
City Council President Dean Frantsvog said authorities expect "a large portion of" the 4,400 homes and 200 businesses that have been evacuated "will be inundated."
In Burlington, a town of about 1,000 people a few miles upstream on the confluence of the Souris and Des Lacs rivers, city officials abandoned sandbagging as hopeless. About a third of 320 houses are expected to be lost in the town that was founded in 1883 and is the oldest in Ward County.
"We're no longer able to save the city," Burlington Mayor Jerome Gruenberg said Thursday.
Burlington officials instead sent people to help with a frenzied labor around Minot, a town best known for its Air Force base but also an important agricultural center and home to many laborers drawn to the oil boom in western North Dakota.
Heavy equipment hauled dirt and clay to raise dikes wherever possible — an effort Zimbelman said would continue until rising water made it impossible. Workers and National Guard members were the only people to be seen in evacuated areas.
Fast-flowing water had overtopped dikes in some places and risen to the first level on several homes. A trailer park was under water. In one area, an old Chevy was half-submerged.
Near the water treatment plant, water had risen above a bridge deck; orange barricades blocked any traffic at either end. Loose clothes, beer cans, dark trash bags, a tire and other assorted trash could be seen floating in the Souris, cast off by departing residents.
Kathy Sivertson, 52, who lives a block outside the initial evacuation zone, was opting to ignore the recommendation for expanded evacuations. She spent part of Thursday moving her belongings out of her basement but said she'd stay in her house until "they kick me out."
Meanwhile, Leon Delker, 55, who lives nine blocks from the river, brought in a survey crew that estimated the water would rise 3 feet on his front door. He planned to remove everything but the American flag in front of his home and "stay out until this thing is over."
Some residents took refuge on the Souris River Golf Course, where longtime pro Steve Kottsick, 59, pieced together a makeshift 8-hole layout on the flooded course. More than 30 people took their swings on Thursday.
"People are a little down and out," Kottsick said. "Hopefully it helps them maintain some sense of normality."
The city's other 18-hole golf course, the Minot Country Club, lost its clubhouse Thursday.