- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2011

MINOT, N.D. (AP) — The Rev. Mike Johnson and the Rev. Mike Pancoast have been too busy helping people chased from their homes by rising waters to give much thought to their own predicament.

The pastors with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are bunking with friends in Minot after being evacuated from the Souris River flood zone last week. But on Saturday they hopped into a car and headed for Velva, about 20 miles downstream, to assist others who were being forced to move.

“It’s disheartening,” Mr. Johnson said, “but I’m grateful that I have a place to go, and I feel for people who are worse off than I am.”

The river appeared to be leveling off early Sunday after swamping an estimated 4,000 homes. It was less than 7 feet above major flood stage and hadn’t changed by more than fractions of an inch during the night. National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Ayd said a crest could be declared later Sunday.

Mr. 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 one another, 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.

“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 lend her 30-foot camper to a displaced family. It quickly drew a taker: a man with a wife and three children who had been 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,” Mrs. 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.

Mr. Pancoast and his wife, Kari, both associate pastors at First Lutheran Church, were staying with the Rev. Kari Williamson, Minot State campus pastor, after the rising river threatened their church and adjacent brick parsonage. Like Mr. Johnson, they didn’t know how high the waters would rise, but they 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,” Mr. Pancoast said, sipping coffee at the kitchen table of Ms. 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?’”

Mr. 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. Ms. Williamson was keeping things for students at Minot State.

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

Two were staying with Capt. Cumbie, 26, who is stationed 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.

On Friday, the river had been expected to peak at about 9 feet above major flood stage, but it leveled off and rose by only tiny amounts Saturday. The National Weather Service dropped the projection by just more than 2 feet as upstream flows weakened. Mr. Ayd said a storm that hit the city Saturday night had little effect.

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,” Mr. 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.

On Sunday, North Dakota National Guard soldiers were monitoring a submerged pedestrian bridge to make sure it didn’t break off in the river channel. The bridge has been trapping debris and could harm nearby levees. Maj. Gen. David A. Sprynczynatyk, the guard’s adjutant general, said soldiers were ready to pull it out if it came loose.

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.

Mr. 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,” Mr. Zimbelman said. “There is just a concern at this point, so we’re taking precautions.”

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