MINOT, N.D. — Driving away with what they could fit in their vehicles, thousands of Minot residents left their homes on Wednesday amid blaring sirens and floodwater that overtopped or seeped through some levees.
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Steve and Michelle Benjamin were among the nearly 12,000 ordered out. Before they fled, however, they hauled an entertainment center, desk chairs and bicycles over an emergency levee to a trailered pickup truck. It was the last of nearly a dozen loads.
Michelle Benjamin, 46, stood on the deck along the rising Souris River, watching water trickle over the dike.
"Oh my God," she said as she fought back tears. "It's not easy starting over at this age."
The river, which begins in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan and flows for a short distance though North Dakota, was all but certain to inundate thousands of homes and businesses during the next week.
The deluge was expected to far exceed a 1969 flood, possibly reaching 13.5 feet above flood stage by Monday. The river is expected to top the historical record set in 1881 by at least seven feet.
The Benjamins, who have lived in a landscaped five-bedroom modular home for 16 years, had moved their belongings out of the river's path twice in less than a month. Some 10,000 residents were evacuated earlier this month before the river hit 5 feet above flood stage. They were later allowed to return but were told to be ready to leave again quickly.
The two moves were particularly taxing on Steve Benjamin, 51, who broke his back in 1984 and has had several surgeries, evidenced by a 20-inch scar spanning much of his bare back. The last item waiting to be loaded — other than their dogs Buster and Bear — was a water bed.
Steve Benjamin said the couple was likely heading to his son's house, which was in Minot but on higher ground outside the evacuation zone.
"I don't think the reality will set in until tomorrow, when we see the water in the house," he said.
The Benjamins and others had less time than they expected, with officials on Wednesday trimming back the evacuation deadline by several hours as water started coming in.
"I feel so bad for everybody," said Robyn Whitlow, who lives outside the evacuation zone but was helping people load their belongings. She burst into tears when sirens sounding the evacuation deadline went off.
Broadway, the main north-south thoroughfare, was bumper-to-bumper by late Wednesday morning with furniture-loaded pickup trucks and cars pulling U-Hauls trying to get out of town.
Ashley Getchell was snapping some photos at Broadway Bridge to document the flood for her two children and because she "has no place else to go."
She had moved most of her belongings from her home at Holiday Village Trailer Park to a friend's house, but she didn't have enough time rescue anything else.
"I'm going to be losing my house," Getchell said calmly. "I guess if anybody needed a reason to start over, this is it."
Laura Nessler pointed to a side street that had become inundated by the Souris River in the hour since she arrived.
"That didn't have any water when I got here, and now it's filling up," Nessler said.
The mayor urged people to be safe as they left.
"Be cautious and be courteous, I guess," Curt Zimbelman told KXMC TV. "Everybody's trying to do the same thing. If we work together, the result's probably going to be the best."
Reservoirs full, water released
Heavy rains over the past six weeks have swelled Canadian reservoirs in the Souris River basin, forcing unprecedented water releases. In turn, U.S. officials must release water from the Lake Darling Dam above Minot at a rate more than double what the recently fortified protections can bear.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to step up releases from the Lake Darling Dam and to 15,000 cubic feet per second on Thursday. Flood defenses in Minot were rated to perhaps 9,500 cubic feet per second, officials have said.
The Corps expects peak releases to reach about 20,000 cubic feet per second by late June and hold there for up to six days before a gradual reduction back to below 8,000 cubic feet per second over five days.
Nearly 500 N.D. National Guard soldiers were in Minot to provide traffic control, ensure people were leaving left their homes and secure neighborhoods.
Guard commander Dave Sprynczynatyk said he expected the impact to be among the worst he has seen in his 40-year career.
"What I see right now is probably the most devastating in terms of the number of people directly impacted and what will likely be the damage to homes as the water begins to overtop the levees and fill in behind," he said.
Sheriff's personnel were also in Minot, ready to operate air rescue boats in case any residents refuse to follow evacuation orders.PhotoBlog: View, discuss weather photos
The massive flooding on the Souris River, which flows into the Red River basin, struck as residents from Montana through Missouri battle Missouri River flows that threaten the North Dakota capital of Bismarck, the South Dakota capital of Pierre and other communities for hundreds of miles downstream.
Earlier, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple had thanked residents in the Bismarck area for offering surplus sandbags and other aid to Minot.
"I never thought we could possibly have anything even coming close to what is happening in Bismarck-Mandan this year ...," Dalrymple told reporters in a briefing. "There will be a lot of water in the city."
The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.