Neighbors Lend a Hand to Flood-Ravaged North Dakota Town

Chased from their homes by rising floodwaters and bunking with friends, clergymen Mike Johnson and Mike Pancoast did what seems to come naturally to folks around here: They hopped into a car and headed for a nearby town to help others evacuate.

"There are people who need help and they need it now and we're able to do it, so let's go," Johnson said Saturday before hitting the road for the North Dakota town of Velva, about 20 miles downstream from Minot, where the Souris River was nearing its peak after swamping an estimated 4,000 homes. The National Weather Service predicted the river's crest later in the weekend would be 2 feet lower than earlier projected, welcome news in the battered community.

Johnson, associate pastor of Christ Lutheran Church, was uncertain about the fate of his own apartment building, although his belongings were safely in the hands of parishioners and friends in town. Fellow Lutherans from Stanley, an hour's drive west, took charge of his office equipment and files. "They just showed up on Tuesday and carted stuff off for us," he said.

Similar stories of people helping each other, often without being asked and demanding nothing in return, were a heartwarming counterpoint to the destruction from unprecedented flooding along the Souris valley in north-central North Dakota. Brought together by word of mouth, church and civic networks, social media and random encounters, those with housing and supplies to spare gave willingly to those without.

So many opened their doors that while some 11,000 people were evacuated from neighborhoods nearest the river, only a few hundred used shelters at Minot State University and the City Auditorium.

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"For the rest of the country, that is kind of mind boggling. But ... that's how we are in North Dakota," Sen. John Hoeven said.

A Facebook page called "Minot ND Flood Help" drew volunteer offers to haul furniture, care for pets, clean laundry and even give therapeutic massages -- many from outside town.

Patrica Eide of Tioga, about 85 miles west, posted an offer to loan her 30-foot camper to a displaced family. It quickly drew a taker: a man with a wife and three children who were living in their van since being evacuated.

"We could probably rent that thing for $500 a month, but I told my husband there's no way I'm going to be greedy," Eide, 62, said by phone. "God just had better plans for our camper than renting it."

She was preparing to haul it to Minot with a load of canned tomatoes and green beans, a grill, propane and other supplies. "I think we've got `em covered," she said.

Mike Pancoast and his wife Kari, both associate pastors at First Lutheran Church, were staying with Minot State campus pastor Kari Williamson after the rising river threatened their church and adjacent brick parsonage. Like Johnson, they didn't know how high the waters would rise, but were confident enough to move most of their clothes and other belongings to higher floors instead of removing them. Their four children were staying with her parents in Minnesota.

"We've kept it together pretty well, although it's not to say we're a solid rock through this," Mike Pancoast said, sipping coffee at the kitchen table of Williamson's ranch-style house. "It's one thing to go and visit somebody and stay in their house and enjoy their hospitality for a couple of days. It's another thing to move in indefinitely and wonder, have we overstayed our welcome?"

Johnson was staying with parishioners David and Laurie Weber. Their teenage sons Preston and Dylan accompanied him to Velva after spending Thursday on their bikes, going door-to-door to help evacuees move furniture.

A common sight was garages packed with televisions, books, clothing and other items as residents turned their homes into temporary storage units for flood victims. Williamson was keeping things for students at Minot State.

Across the street, a trailer stuffed with household belongings stood in Derek Cumbie's driveway. His garage was a veritable warehouse after several friends dropped off their things.

Two were staying with Cumbie, 26, a captain at Minot Air Force Base.

"I've been really impressed with how people in this community are helping each other, so I wanted to do my part," he said.

The river had been expected to peak at some 8 1/2 feet above major flood stage, but it leveled off hours earlier and was only rising by tiny amounts later Saturday. The National Weather Service dropped the projection by about 2 feet as upstream flows weakened.

City officials applauded when Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman announced the peak forecast at a news conference. He warned the sustained high water flows were likely to last for three to four days, enough to put significant strain on the city's newly built earthen levees.

"You've got that deterioration on the dikes. If you see how fast that water is moving, it's scary," Zimbelman said. "We're concerned that we can hold it, and it's critical that we keep a vigilant eye on this."

Minot's Broadway Street bridge over the Souris, which is its most important connection between the north and south sections of the city, is likely to remain closed until the crest recedes, the mayor said.

Problems at Minot's water treatment plant prompted the state Department of Health to issue a "boil order" on Saturday for users of city water. It also applies to the Minot Air Force Base, about 13 miles north of town, which gets its drinking water from Minot's municipal system.

Alan Walter, Minot's public works director, said water plant workers discovered that untreated water had gotten into the city system, and he believe the problem would be remedied in one or two days.

Zimbelman said city officials were "not completely sure at this point" that Minot's water supply had been contaminated.

"It has not been fully tested ... to show that it is contaminated," Zimbelman said. "There is just a concern at this point, so we're taking precautions."