Evacuated Residents of ND City Returning Home

Residents of a northeastern North Dakota city who evacuated their homes when rain-fed floods threatened to overwhelm a nearby dam began returning home Friday, bringing with them a huge sense of relief.

"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 city's 1,300 residents evacuated their homes Tuesday after five days of steady rain raised the level of the lake behind Renwick Dam on the Tongue River about six miles west of Cavalier. Officials built an emergency levee to keep more water from overwhelming the dam and flooding rural farmsteads and the city. Cavalier is about 80 miles north of Grand Forks.

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.

Officials announced Thursday that residents could return with the understanding that they might have to leave again if things took a turn for the worse. Briese and Kirking said rain forecast for the weekend was not expected to cause any problems.

The river continued to run high and fast, but sandbag levees held back the water.

"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."

Dozens of National Guard soldiers helped to build the levees and monitor the flooding.

"It is kind of a good feeling helping out," said Spc. Moses Zozimo, of Fargo. "By me doing even a little, it's helping them a lot."

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 the dam situation returns to normal and they are allowed back home.

Residents were returning home in an orderly fashion.

"Seems like people just came back from a weekend out of town," Briese said.

Businesses were turning their lights back on, too.

"I think life is back to normal when the Main Street cafe is open," Kirking said.

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