Cavalier scatters: Renwick Dam holds despite heavy pressure
CAVALIER -- It was as if it was the Fourth of July, and a pleasant Sunday to boot, and all the people of this Pembina County town of 1,300 had gone to the lake.
Stores were shuttered, and on residential streets drapes were drawn, driveways empty, yards free of children. No dogs barked at the occasional passerby.
Cavalier was officially closed Wednesday, shut down as a safety precaution as authorities monitored the Renwick Dam, the 1961 structure trying to restrain an unprecedented amount of water coming from the west through the Tongue River watershed.
Local officials declared late Wednesday that the evacuation order would remain in effect at least to today, when they will re-evaluate the threat from the dam. Cavalier schools will be closed today.
The rate of rise at the dam had been 4 inches an hour late Tuesday but had slowed to a tenth of an inch an hour Wednesday morning, said Allen Anderson, a member of the Cavalier City Council.
"We're still going up, but at a very low rate," he said. "Everything is holding. The dams are all running at full capacity, but they're running as they're designed."
Later, Barbara Whelan, acting as public information officer for city, county, state and federal agencies involved in the local flood fight, said the flow appeared to have stabilized.
"We've not reached the top of the dam, but it's very, very high," she said. "We're hoping for a significant decrease tomorrow.
"It is still a dangerous situation, but there are no cracks, no bulges, and we're keeping a close eye on it."
Anderson farms outside Cavalier and had "never seen anything like this," he said.
"We've been wet 10 years in this county," he said. "We've had 9½ inches of rain since Friday west of town, and 5 inches in town. We can't seem to get a normal rain anymore."
The Renwick Dam is on the Tongue River at Icelandic State Park, about 6 miles west of Cavalier, the Pembina County seat. The city is about 85 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
'Streets are dry'
Whelan, the Walsh County state's attorney who also serves as an assistant state's attorney for Pembina County, opened her first news briefing Wednesday on a cheerful note.
"The sun is shining, it's not raining," she said, and there was other good news: Overnight, construction crews had added 2 to 3 feet to a temporary section across the dam spillway, all retention dams were operating and were being monitored around the clock.
All entry points to the city remained blocked throughout the day by police, sheriff's deputies, state patrol and border patrol officers and National Guard troops. Local residents were told not to return to their homes except to retrieve medicines or for other emergency purposes, for which they would be escorted in and out of town.
The mandatory evacuation was ordered Tuesday night as concern for the dam grew.
"I know it's hard for people to leave their homes and businesses," Whelan said. "But residents should feel comfortable and confident. The power is on, the main lift station is operating and the streets are dry."
Pembina County Sheriff Brian Erovick said about a dozen people refused to obey the mandatory evacuation order. Police spoke to the holdouts but did not plan to force them to leave, he said.
"We tried to convince them it's their best option to leave, since the power is on and pumps are working," he said, adding that he was concerned "we may have to help them leave later with a boat or a payloader, hopefully not a stretcher."
Robert and Elizabeth Carroll were among residents who returned briefly to Cavalier Wednesday to fetch necessities.
"I left my glasses," Elizabeth Carroll said. "How do you forget your glasses?"
They were escorted into town by a Border Patrol officer, who stood by as Robert Carroll loaded a vacuum cleaner into the bed of his pickup. He needed it, he said, for his German shepherd, Sugar, who was staying with them in a camper at Icelandic State Park.
"A big dog in a little camper doesn't work well without something to clean up after her," he said.
The couple said they had to evacuate twice Tuesday, first moving from an apartment in a low-lying area to a friend's home on higher ground, and from there when the mandatory evacuation was ordered.
A shelter with food and cots for up to 200 evacuees was opened by the Red Cross Tuesday night in the Drayton, N.D., school, but volunteer shelter manager Nancy Young from Fargo said nobody had checked in Tuesday night except for four news media people.
Evacuees "must have gone to family and friends," she said. "That's not unusual for North Dakota. ... We even had three people from town here come in and say, 'Here's my number, and here's my address if anybody needs a place to stay.'"
The Red Cross closed the shelter at 9 p.m. Wednesday after no one used it.
"If there is anyone that needs shelter, we will send people back to provide that aid," said Tom Tezel, regional emergency service director.
Those needing emergency shelter can contact the Red Cross at (701) 364-1800.
Marie and Tim Vetter left their home in Cavalier for a motel in Grand Forks, which offered a special rate for evacuees.
They have four of their six children with them, ages 6 months, 2 years, 7 and 11.
"It's kind of an exciting vacation for them," Marie Vetter said. "The 11-year-old is more worried than anyone. But the rest get to swim in the pool and eat in the restaurant. They're living it up."
They're concerned for their home, which was threatened by ground water even before questions arose about the dam, and they're not sure how long they'll have to stay away.
And Marie Vetter said she regrets leaving one vital piece of equipment behind in the rush to evacuate.
"The baby bouncer!" she said. "Where do I set him down?"
Whelan said some residents have called about heading back to their homes.
"I wouldn't say they're pounding on the door, but people are anxious," she said.
Erovick, whose family was staying with relatives in Grafton, N.D., while he patrolled Cavalier's quiet streets, said the day's warm, cloudless weather helped bolster confidence locally.
"But there's still a tremendous amount of pressure on that dam," he said. "It's more water than I've ever seen."
Neil Fleming, an attorney and longtime resident of the area, said the dam and its supporting retention dams were built after a historic flood in 1950.
"I was in the first grade (at Hamilton, N.D., just east of Cavalier), and I watched the water roll in," he said. "You could see it rolling in -- massive -- right across the countryside."
Altru Health System in Grand Forks has worked with Pembina County Memorial Hospital to provide for people of the area who require medical assistance. Altru Clinic in Cavalier was closed until further notice, according to a statement issued by Altru Health System Wednesday. Altru said it has opened a patient hotline at (701) 780-2227.
From Cavalier south to Minto, Park River, Grafton and beyond, lake-like sheets of water covered fields to the horizon Wednesday, rippling in the breeze and feeding torrents rushing through culverts.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, accompanied by Maj. Gen. David A. Sprynczynatyk, adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard, and Todd Sando, the state engineer, made stops Wednesday in Cavalier, Grafton and Crystal, N.D., a small town south of Cavalier that suffered swamped roads and basements on Tuesday.
Reporter Robb Jeffries contributed to this article.