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Published May 21, 2013, 10:00 PM

'They all need to get out': Cavalier residents flee flood threat

CAVALIER, N.D. — Officials ordered a mandatory evacuation Tuesday of Cavalier and other areas directly downstream from the Renwick Dam, in danger of failing and flooding the Pembina County community.

By: Forum News Service, INFORUM

CAVALIER, N.D. — Officials ordered a mandatory evacuation Tuesday of Cavalier and other areas directly downstream from the Renwick Dam, in danger of failing and flooding the Pembina County community.

“There is so much water pressure on it right now,” Pembina County Commissioner Gary Nilsson said. “It might not break it, but we can’t take that chance. We can’t take people’s lives into our hands like that.”

If Renwick Dam gives way to the rising water, Nilsson said the water would likely cause major flooding in Cavalier.

“It will also probably spread north and east and God knows where,” he said. “Nobody really knows what could happen because it’s never happened before.

“Everybody in the Tongue River basin should be evacuated. They all need to get out. All we can do is pray and hope nothing happens,” Nilsson said.

The Renwick Dam is on the Tongue River at Icelandic State Park, about 6 miles west of Cavalier, a community of 1,300 that serves as the Pembina County seat. The city is about 85 miles northwest of Grand Forks.

Officials made the evacuation decision after rising water in the reservoir Monday put them on alert for a possible failure.

“It is necessary at this time to take action to protect your family and property,” Cavalier Police Chief Steve Yttredahl said in a prepared statement. “We are implementing predetermined actions to respond to a rapidly developing situation that could result in dam failure.”

American Red Cross volunteers had an emergency shelter open by 7 p.m. at the public school in Drayton, N.D.

The Red Cross sent a trailer with 200 cots, 400 blankets and food and water to Drayton, with expectations the shelter would be open for a week.

“Come morning, we’ll begin serving meals to anyone who has sought refuge at the school,” said Tom Tezel, regional emergency service director.

Those needing emergency shelter can contact the Red Cross at (701) 364-1800.

Authorities called for a voluntary evacuation prior to the mandatory order.

“I’ve seen a lot of traffic,” Cavalier resident Kyle McFadden, 17, said. “There has been some sandbagging going on in the low-lying areas they’re trying to save. I’ve never seen the city so busy.”

Wedgewood Manor, a nursing home on the west side of Cavalier, was evacuated Tuesday morning. The 43 residents were transferred to nursing homes in Walhalla, Langdon, Grafton and Park River, N.D., as well as to Unity Hospital in Grafton, according to Everett Butler, CEO of Wedgewood and Grafton’s Unity.

“We were advised by the local emergency management because of the overland flooding and the potential issues west of town,” he said.

Country Estates, a 20-unit apartment complex for the elderly, also was evacuated. Those residents moved in with family members.

Meanwhile, officials expected to relocate patients of Pembina County Memorial Hospital in Cavalier, to comply with the evacuation order, according to Butler. While the hospital had six patients, he expected at least a few of them might have been released, rather than relocated.

First Care Center in Park River offered to take the patients, Butler said.

The North Dakota National Guard deployed about 50 soldiers to help with security and traffic checkpoints near Cavalier, and have sent three Blackhawk helicopters to help monitor the Tongue River. Several one-ton sandbags have also been sent to Cavalier in case they are needed to reinforce Renwick Dam.

“Unfortunately, we’re well-versed in flood operations, as we’ve had a number of responses in past years,” said Capt. Dan Murphy, Guard spokesman. “We’ll be there to help with the effort, and will respond to any more requests for additional aid.”

The evacuation area is located between Icelandic State Park and the city of Cavalier, according to Pembina County Emergency Manager Andrew Kirking. The area is one to two miles wide, bordered on the south by N.D. Highway 5, which serves as a levee.

Emergency officials were worried about the structural integrity of an emergency levee built on top of the dam’s emergency spillway.

Portions of Pembina and Cavalier counties have received 6 to 7 inches of rain over the four days leading up to Tuesday. The precipitation has raised water levels in the Tongue and other area rivers and filled up reservoirs west of Cavalier.

“As they get filled with water, they fill as they’re supposed to,” Kirking said. “But it’s putting a lot of pressure on Renwick.”

Water was running into Lake Renwick at a rate of about 4 inches per hour Tuesday afternoon, officials said.

Renwick Dam, built in 1961, is in the middle of a $7 million restoration project.

Meanwhile, residents of Crystal, N.D., about 15 miles to the south, worked throughout the day Tuesday to reduce the damage from flooding that swamped roads and basements in the town of 130.

While the flood threat appeared to be easing, water covered most streets and surrounded some businesses Tuesday afternoon.

Volunteers were called that morning to St. Patrick’s Catholic Church and Crystal Methodist Church, to help remove items, including keepsakes, from their basements.

Among the valuable items moved to the first floor of the Methodist church was an Acrosonic upright piano that was given to the congregation in memory of former Crystal resident Rae Ann Johnston, who died in a flash flood in Rapid City, S.D., in the 1970s, according to Darin Otto, church lay leader.

Before volunteers manned pumps to remove water, which had seeped into the building, the basement had about 4 to 5 inches of water.

“It was right below the strings, so hopefully it’ll be OK,” he said.