MINOT, N.D. – Plastic sheeting hung over the apartment building like a shroud, stretching from the eaves to the ground. Across it, someone had spray-painted the word "pray" and drawn a line labeled "1969" -- the level where floodwaters had risen the last time the Souris River climbed out of its banks in Minot.
That line stood just 2 feet above the ground. But the water is expected to climb far higher in parts of this Air Force town over the coming days as the little-known waterway swells from rain and snowmelt. It could bring the region's worst flooding in four decades.
As many as 10,000 people raced to evacuate Wednesday as water began spilling over Minot's levees. 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.
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., 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.
Nearby, Steve and Michelle Benjamin were hard at work 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.
Michelle Benjamin, 46, stood on the deck along the river, watching water trickle over the dike.
"Oh my God," she said as she fought back tears. "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. Some 10,000 residents evacuated before the river hit 5 feet above flood stage. They were allowed to return but were warned to be ready to leave again quickly.
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.
Benjamin said the couple was likely heading to his son's house, which was in Minot but on higher ground outside the evacuation zone.
"I don't think the reality will set in until tomorrow, when we see the water in the house," he said.
Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman warned that the river would top the levees earlier than expected and urged residents still moving their belongings to "be prepared to move quickly."
The National Weather Service in Bismarck also issued a flash-flood warning along the river from Burlington through Minot and Logan to Sawyer.
Before the sirens sounded, Laura Nessler, a nurse, watched the water lap against a bridge on Broadway, the main north-south thoroughfare through Minot. The road was bumper-to-bumper with pickup trucks carrying furniture and cars pulling trailers.
Nessler pointed to a side street that had flooded in the hour since she arrived.
"That didn't have any water when I got here, and now it's filling up," Nessler said.
Ashley Getchell was snapping some photos at Broadway Bridge to document the flood for her 1 1/2- and 3-year-old kids and because she "has no place else to go."
The stay-at-home mom had moved most of her belongings from her home at Holiday Village Trailer Park to a friend's house, but she didn't have enough time to rescue anything else.
"I'm going to be losing my house," she said calmly. "I guess if anybody needed a reason to start over, this is it."
Further north near the Canadian border, the river rose nearly 4 feet in the Sherwood area, where water released from Canadian dams arrives in North Dakota.
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.
Nearly 500 National Guard soldiers were in town to help with traffic control and the evacuation.