MINOT, N.D. - Federal officials sharply increased plans to release more water on the swollen Souris River Thursday, adding up to three feet to the expected peak of flooding at Minot, North Dakota, where thousands of homes already have been evacuated.
Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman urged residents living on the fringes outside the required evacuation zones inside the river valley to move belongings to upper levels of their houses.
But Zimbelman said he would not force more people to evacuate after the government decided to release more water starting over the weekend and extending into next week.
"People are certainly encouraged if they would like to, if they feel vulnerable, to move out. We are just not going to mandate it," Zimbelman said. The additional water release would only expand the flood area by a city block or so around the perimeter.
To the northwest, Burlington officials decided to keep evacuation voluntary for threatened regions not already required to leave. North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple said no expanded evacuations would be ordered for rural areas.
Many residents forced from their homes in Minot, North Dakota's fourth largest city, have moved in with friends or family, checked into hotels and shelters, or were camping on high ground around the city.
North Dakota National Guard soldiers and airmen patrolled evacuated neighborhoods, knocking on doors and ensuring security for thousands of homes under mandatory evacuation because of flooding along the Souris, or Mouse, river.
Brownish water flowed over temporary dikes through backyards in evacuated areas Thursday, visibly rising in low-lying underpasses more than two feet deep. Some businesses stood vacant and unprotected, while others were ringed by hastily built berms or sandbag dikes.
Up to 12,000 residents were ordered out of flood-threatened areas by Wednesday afternoon as swiftly rising waters began to run over permanent and temporary levee defenses.
The river crest has already exceeded a 1969 flood that residents had used as a benchmark for evacuation plans.
A dramatic surge is expected over the next few days as federal officials increase already unprecedented water releases from the Lake Darling Dam above the city. The river could reach 10 feet more than the 1969 flooding mark and 8 feet more than record levels set 130 years ago.
At Maysa Arena, located on ground above expected flood levels, campers filled parking spaces and some residents have set up tents. How long they will have to stay is a big question, arena manager Chuck Emery said.
"I am expecting that we will probably have people here for close to two months," Emery said in a telephone interview. "I don't know that anyone has that answer."
Ice rinks for furniture
The Minot Park District-run arena opened one of its two ice rinks to personal furniture Monday. It was filled by early Tuesday morning with the belongings from 65 to 70 homes.
Emery, whose home is above the flood zone, said it was tough telling people the arena had no more room for storage.
"That actually was the hardest thing," Emery said. "I took almost 75 to 100 phone calls myself, and telling people, 'No, I'm sorry I don't have any room.'"
Heavy rains across the Souris River Basin left Canadian reservoirs over capacity. Water rushing down from Canada in turn has forced U.S. officials to make record releases from the Lake Darling Dam above Minot and other communities.
Flood warnings have stretched from Burlington, northwest of Minot, through Logan and Sawyer to the southeast. Officials ordered a mandatory evacuation of Sawyer late Wednesday.
The second mass evacuation of Minot neighborhoods within a month — the area had been ordered cleared just after Memorial Day due to flooding — left residents in shock.
"A lot of people had moved back in and got back to normal life and then just the last couple of days they were told a wall of water was moving this way and we simply are not able to accommodate that," National Guard spokesman Captain Dan Murphy said on Thursday in a telephone interview.
"There was really no way for the community to prepare for what is happening," he said.
The situation worsened Thursday as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers increased water releases to 18,000 cubic feet per second from Lake Darling, with plans to raise that to 22,000 Thursday night and 28,000 on Friday, about triple what the Minot defenses could handle.
Minot officials closed the Broadway Bridge over the Souris River to traffic on Thursday. The bridge is a main north-south artery they had hoped to keep open throughout the flooding.
Amtrak has suspended Empire Builder passenger train service in part of Minnesota, North Dakota and eastern Montana due to flooding.
The Red Cross said on Thursday that it sheltered 185 people at Minot Auditorium and 25 at Minot State University Dome overnight. Another 50 people stayed at Minot Air Force Base.
The massive flooding at Minot temporarily overshadowed the inundation along the Missouri River that threatens cities from Montana through Missouri.
A deep melting snowpack and heavy rains left six reservoirs on the Upper Missouri River near capacity, forcing record water releases expected to continue through August, causing widespread flooding in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.
(Additional reporting by David Bailey in Minneapolis and David Hendee in Omaha, Nebraska; Editing by Greg McCune)