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The swollen Souris River is wreaking havoc in North Dakota and has sent communities scrambling to protect their homes and businesses.
NPR's Carrie Kahn has the tale of two towns on the river. Residents in both put up a Herculean effort to stop the floodwaters. One town succeeded, the other didn't.
CARRIE KAHN: The Souris crested early this morning through the town of Velva.
Ms. KIM UNRUH(ph) (National Guard): Everybody ready? Count of three. One, two...
KAHN: National Guard Sergeant Kim Unruh and her crew were still laying plastic sheeting and sandbagging the dirt levees.
(Soundbite of plastic sheeting)
KAHN: Roland Hamborg with the Army Corps of Engineers says at the crest, a grove of 50-foot-tall trees toppled under the weight of all the rushing water.
Mr. ROLAND HAMBORG (Army Corps of Engineers): About every 15, 20 minutes, a tree would go down and just come crashing down.
KAHN: But the levees held and not one house was lost in Velva.
Homeowner Keith Cederstrom says practically the whole town was on those levees, sandbagging as fast as they could.
Mr. KEITH CEDERSTROM: Most of us were running about 20 hours a day there for a few days. I slept pretty good last night. My buddies put me up in their place on the top of the hill, so...
KAHN: In city hall, right next to the fire station, Mayor Ken Fox looks relaxed, chatting with volunteers taking a break. Long plastic tables are filled with fruit, pizza, cookies and brownies. Fox says the town put up one hell of a fight. Early yesterday, right before the crest, one section of the levee started to erode.
Mayor KEN FOX (Velva, North Dakota): It was really a touch-and-go kind of thing, and I thought, my gosh, if we had worked this hard.
KAHN: Crews scrambled to dump rocks and more dirt in the section and cover it with plastic. The crest came through and the levee held. Fox said he knew the town would be fine.
Mayor FOX: It was just a great feeling. You know, it's - I can't describe it.
KAHN: About 75 miles upstream, the mayor of Burlington, Jerome Gruenberg, is also searching for words as he surveys his town in a boat.
Mayor JEROME GRUENBERG (Burlington, North Dakota): I don't know. It's just hard to describe. I mean, nobody would believe this if they couldn't come and see it.
KAHN: Water is up to the shingles of most houses. There is a boat on the roof of one home. Trailers have slipped off foundations and are floating sideways.
Mayor GRUENBERG: You can see in this next house where there's furniture floating around inside and...
KAHN: Burlington's fire chief, Karter Lesmann, says the water is 20 feet deep in some spots.
Mr. KARTER LESMANN (Fire Chief, Burlington, North Dakota): Cherry Street's right behind us. Right under the eye-line wire is Cherry. That's the street sign for Willow and Elm.
KAHN: You couldn't see the sign under the water and we drove right over the top. Lesmann says the town fought as hard as it could for five straight days. Each day, they got word that more water was coming, so they built the levees higher. But the water came faster than they could build.
Mr. LESMANN: We said we can rebuild houses, but we can't rebuild people, so we quit at that time, got everybody off the dike. And six hours after that, we had water running over cold.
KAHN: Six more hours and the town was underwater. The sewers are ruined; so is the drinking water system. Lesmann says if they had just had one more day, he thinks they could have built those levees high enough.
Mayor Gruenberg says his call to the Army Corps of Engineers didn't bring help in time.
Mayor GRUENBERG: When they finally saw how serious this was, then they came to help. By then, it was too late.
KAHN: It's going to be a while before the water recedes. And then Gruenberg says his town will band together once again and rebuild it.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Minot, North Dakota.
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