Few vacancies for thousands of ND flood evacuees

Associated Press

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — Many of the thousands who have fled their homes as the Souris River spills into the North Dakota city of Minot have been scrambling to relocate in a region that boasts few vacancies in even the best of times, thanks largely to the state's oil boom.

Officials said as many as 10,000 people had evacuated Minot by Wednesday, and while a few hundred were staying in temporary city shelters, many others were staying on friends' couches, under tents or even in vehicles.

Aquira Fritt, 23 years old and 7 1/2 months pregnant, planned to spend the night in a van with her boyfriend and 5-year-old son.

"There are no hotel rooms, no campers to rent, nothing," Fritt said Wednesday, shortly before emergency sirens blared to signal the evacuation deadline. "It's very stressful and it's very annoying."

Her son, Azzyah, considered it an adventure.

"He thinks it's a campout," Fritt said. "He's happy he gets a chance to use his sleeping bag."

The water is expected to climb to record levels over the coming days in parts of this Air Force town as the little-known waterway swells from rain and snowmelt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple warned that releases planned to begin on Thursday would be dramatic.

"In two days' time, it will be a rapid, rapid rise," Dalrymple said.

The river, which begins in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and flows for a short distance though North Dakota, was all but certain to inundate thousands of homes and businesses during the next week.

Allan McGeough, executive director of the Minot chapter of the Red Cross, said a few hundred people showed up at the city's homeless shelters Wednesday night. Both he and Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman expected that number to increase, but Zimbelman said a majority of people have opened their doors to evacuees.

"I tell you what, North Dakotans are pretty good people," Zimbelman said. "They're finding places either with friends or neighbors or family. Because there's not much room in our hotels. They're full with the oil people."

The oil boom in western North Dakota has taken off in the last two years, leading to an influx of thousands of workers, some of whom stay in Minot for months at a time and drive 70 miles west to the rigs. Plans are in place to construct so-called man camps to house the workers.

Wendy Howe, executive director of the Minot Convention & Visitors Bureau, said very few people called looking for lodging during the first evacuation in early June. She said it took fewer than a dozen lodging-related calls this week because early warning gave residents time to move in with friends or family.

She said Minot's 1,820 hotel and motel rooms averaged 80 percent occupancy through May on the strength of workers from the oil field, tourists from Canada and the city's location as a regional business hub, partly due to its major hospital and university.

Two shelters had been opened, one at the city's auditorium and the other at the athletic facility dome at Minot State University, McGeough said, both equipped with water, food, mental health professionals and nurses. They were nearing the combined capacity of 1,000 Wednesday night, but McGeough said others could be opened.

Maj. Gen. David Sprynczyantyk, the North Dakota National Guard commander, said the Guard is working with the federal government on a long-term housing plan for the evacuees. The plan should be announced within two days, he said.

Red Cross volunteers from as far as California were arriving to help, and nearly 500 National Guard soldiers were assisting with traffic control and the evacuation.

A quarter of the city's 41,000 residents had been facing a 6 p.m. evacuation order, but emergency sirens blared at 1 p.m. Wednesday, warning people that the deadline had been moved up by five full hours. Before making their escape, city crews sandbagged critical structures such as the water-treatment plant, city hall and school buildings.

"I feel so bad for everybody," said Robyn Whitlow, who lives outside the evacuation zone but was helping people load their belongings. She burst into tears when the siren went off.

The deluge along the Souris was expected to easily exceed a 1969 flood, possibly reaching 13.5 feet above flood stage by Monday. The river is expected to top the historical record set in 1881 by more than 5 feet.

Steve and Michelle Benjamin were hard at work Wednesday hauling an entertainment center, desk chairs and bicycles over an emergency levee to a trailered pickup truck. It was the last of nearly a dozen loads.

"Oh my God," said Michelle Benjamin, 46, fighting back tears as she watched water trickle over the dike. "It's not easy starting over at this age."

The couple, who have lived in a landscaped five-bedroom modular home for 16 years, had moved their belongings out of the river's path twice in less than a month.

The repeated moves were particularly taxing for Steve Benjamin, 51, who broke his back in 1984 and has had several surgeries, evidenced by a 20-inch scar spanning much of his bare back. The last item waiting to be loaded — other than their dogs Buster and Bear — was a water bed.

"I don't think the reality will set in until tomorrow, when we see the water in the house," he said.

Minot, the fourth-largest city in North Dakota, is less than 60 miles south of the Canadian border. It was founded in the late 1800s during construction of the Great Northern Railroad. The economy relies extensively on agriculture, as well as Minot Air Force Base and the recent oil boom in the western part of the state.