In this Wednesday, May 22, 2013 aerial photo, floodwater from heavy rains in northeast North Dakota surround a farm west of Cavalier, N.D., in Pembina County.
BISMARCK, N.D. — A dam that threatened to give way and flood a North Dakota town was holding back the water on Wednesday, though the 1,300 residents of Cavalier were still being told to stay away from their homes.
Steady rainfall between Friday and Tuesday dumped about 9 inches of rain on parts of Pembina County, swelling creeks and rivers and sending water flowing across the countryside from west to east in the east-sloping county. The small town of Crystal flooded Tuesday, forcing a few residents from their homes, and people in Cavalier — about 85 miles north of Grand Forks — were told to evacuate Tuesday night as a precaution should the Renwick Dam about six miles west of town on the Tongue River be overwhelmed.
The evacuations included two or three patients at a hospital and 63 people in a nursing home and assisted living center, county Emergency Manager Andrew Kirking said. They were taken either to care facilities in surrounding communities or to the homes of relatives.
Local, state and federal officials built an emergency levee with the help of the National Guard on Tuesday to try to prevent floodwaters from eroding the emergency spillway at the earth-and-concrete Renwick Dam. The levee was being reinforced and monitored Wednesday as the area enjoyed sunshine instead of rain clouds for the first time in five days, Kirking said.
"The rising water has slowed overnight. It is still rising, but it is not nearly at the rate it was yesterday at this time," he said. "We are very, very cautiously optimistic now that the water has slowed."
A slow leak in the dam would mean a slow rise of water over a long period of time downstream, Kirking said. "Should we have a catastrophic failure, the worst-case scenario, we would see a massive amount of water," he said. "We could see a foot of standing water in the six miles from (the dam) to Cavalier."
The water also would flood about a dozen people on rural farmsteads, he said.
Margaret Bjornson-Holm, 53, who has lived in Cavalier most of her life, said she and her family gathered up some belongings and important documents before "packing a suitcase and heading out." They are staying with family in Grand Forks, about 75 miles away.
"You just deal with it," Bjornson-Holm said. "It sounds like things are looking up, but we're not out of the woods yet."
North Dakota's Transportation Department closed state Highway 18 at Neche, along the border with Canada, and Highway 5 near Cavalier due to the flooding.
Floodwaters in Crystal, where six families in the town of 160 residents left their homes Tuesday, were receding Wednesday and cleanup was underway, Mayor Larry McCollum said. As many as 30 homes had water in their basements.
"Our roads and everything got beat up bad during the flood," McCollum said. "But we'll be back to normal here in two to three days."
Jim Thompson, merchandiser at the Columbia Grain elevator in Crystal, said officials were able to get back into the business Wednesday.
"There's no damage to the elevator of the office here," he said. "We definitely lucked out."
In Walsh County, officials fortified levees in Grafton against an expected record crest of the Park River in the city of about 4,500 people.
"I think we're well-prepared to hold (the river) back," county Emergency Manager Brent Nelson said. "We're fairly optimistic that we shouldn't have any major issues."
Gov. Jack Dalrymple has directed various state agencies to help with the flood fight. He planned to take aerial and ground tours of the area Wednesday afternoon, spokesman Jeff Zent said.
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