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Velva welcomes evacuees back

Photo by Tu-Uyen Tran/Forum Communications Co. Marlowe Kittelson, standing, and Vern Kelly, leaning over, help move a cast-iron stove back into the Quilted Bean, a Velva cafe and quilt shop owned by their friend, Mardi Schock.

VELVA -- "I got a house for sale! Do you wanna buy one?" Dennis Oster said, grinning ear to ear. "It's empty and ready to go!"

His wife Chris was inside unpacking.

The Souris River, not more than half a block down the street, was high enough a week ago that residents were ordered to evacuate as a precaution. And the Osters, like many residents and businesses in this town of 1,100, took just about everything with them, including appliances and furniture that they packed into two U-Haul trucks and a flatbed trailer.

They've been living in a camper at a friend's farm since.

Thursday was the first day everyone was allowed back, greeted by undamaged homes and businesses and a big sign at the south entrance into town: "Welcome home," it says.

Mayor Ken Fox said he was "entirely satisfied" with the way the town has responded to the disaster, from the flood fighters to the evacuees, from the orderly departure to the equally orderly return. Some evacuees, he said, have even delayed moving back in because they see this as an opportunity to clean hard to reach places.

River recedes

The water had receded to the point that clay levees and sandbags on Central Avenue were removed by late Thursday morning. The North Dakota Highway 41 bridge reopened after state inspectors checked it for damage. Its closure forced residents north of Velva to take a circuitous detour around to Minot and back.

At 1,512 feet above sea level, the river had dropped more than 2.5 feet since the last highest elevation measured Sunday.

"I think we have the best dikes in the state; they held," Oster said. The Souris River is less than a block away from his home and, had the dikes not held, he said, "the water would've been over my shingles."

The Osters have friends in Minot whose homes were one of some 4,000 damaged when the river overflowed the main dikes there. They said they're trying to make quick work of their move so they could be ready to help those friends clean up.

Velva's dikes might have overflowed, too, if they had not been topped with clay and sandbags. When the permanent dikes were built in the mid-1980s, the city was told it would be good enough to battle a 100-year flood, Fox said. Yet, what was once rare has now happened twice. The dikes had to be reinforced in the 2009 floods, too.

City officials are talking with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to find a more permanent solution, the mayor said.

Double evacuee

Not far from the Oster home, Marvin Jensen and his youngest daughter Nicole were also moving back into a small apartment. But it was their third, not second move.

The first was when they moved out of their home just northeast of Velva, where Marvin Jensen was born 75 years ago and still wants to live if he still can. Nicole Jensen had been living there as his caretaker.

The house is right on the river. It survived the floods of 1969, 1976 and 2009. The Jensens had to leave it in April and they suspect there's now a few feet of water on the main floor.

"I don't think I got any house left," Marvin Jensen said. When he was told to evacuate, he only had time to take some clothes, a TV and some personal papers, he said, so he's not sure what can be salvaged. There were even old photos left behind, he said.

They sought refuge in the apartment, only to be forced out again when Velva evacuated. Now they're back in Velva and it only took an hour and a half to move in. There wasn't much to move.

Back in business

In Velva's downtown, Mardi Schock was reopening the Quilted Bean, a cafe and quilting store that combines her two passions. It had served panini sandwiches and cookies and brownies baked on the premises. On Thursday, the main floor was just about empty except for the counter. The furniture and various supplies were high up on the second floor and several appliances were in a moving van outside.

Along Main Street, a few other businesses were also cleaning up or already open, such as the grocery store. But many had yet to stir. Walls of sandbags still covered their entry way.

When the evacuation order came, Schock said she was in a camper 650 miles away in Canada. There was no way to get back to Velva in time, she said, and she had to rely on her daughter, Heather Tudor, who managed to move not only the Quilted Bean, but her day care business, her husband Joe's insurance agency and her own home.

The Schock home, north of Velva, is on high ground and wasn't in danger.

Tudor said she had a lot of help moving out. There were 16 in all, including friends, family and airmen from nearby Minot Air Force Base, she said counting them out loud.

They got a lot of help moving back in, too. A group of men, including Joe Schock and son David were muscling what they described as a "two-ton stove" down the ramp and in the door. It probably doesn't weigh 4,000 pounds, but it is a replica cast-iron stove and big enough to accommodate six gas burners. Weaving in and out were other helpers with blenders and boxes.

"I'm just so thankful for friends," Mardi Schock said. "And I'm so thankful we didn't get flooded."

Tran is a reporter at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.