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Sandbags placed at flood-weakened dam

Midwest Flooding
A North Dakota Air National Guard helicopter carries six 1,000-pound sandbags to the edge of the Clausen Springs dam on Wednesday in a bid to control the erosion of the emergency spillway.Dave Wallis / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A convoy of trucks, excavators, bulldozers and backhoes moved in to fortify a seeping dam Thursday in eastern North Dakota as engineers and National Guard troops worked to save a tiny town that would flood if the dam fails.

Water was flowing like a miniature waterfall around a corner of the earthen Clausen Springs Dam, which protects the town of Kathryn, downhill and about six miles east. The water was eating through walls of the grass-lined spillway built to handle the extra water volume along a tributary of the flooding Sheyenne River.

If the dam fails, state Water Commission engineer Bruce Engelhardt said, "you'd have a large pulse of water going downstream."

Kathryn's 55 residents evacuated on Wednesday. The town was mostly deserted except for a handful of National Guard soldiers, surveyors and heavy equipment parked on Main Street. The Sheyenne Saloon, facing Main Street, the Rusty Spur Cafe and the huge grain elevator at the end of the street were closed.

A few residents stopped by Thursday afternoon to check on their homes. Gordy Madland, wearing high wading boots, pulled his pickup in his garage and took time for a beer and cigarette.

"I was very nervous yesterday. I feel a lot better today," he said. "I really started racing yesterday, I mean, there could be a wall of water coming down. I guess I was the last one to get out of here."

Madland, 68, spent the night at a campground. He praised the Army Corps of Engineers for helping protect Kathryn. "It's a nice quiet town," he said. "It's peaceful."

3 a.m. sandbag drop
Overnight, water began seeping past one-ton sandbags that troops had laid Wednesday. National Guard Lt. Col. Rick Smith said a quick-reaction force using night-vision goggles began dropping more sandbags at about 3 a.m. Guard officials said later in the day they had placed about 100 one-ton sandbags on a section of the dam and planned about 60 more.

Midwest Flooding
North Dakota National Guardsman Eric Johnson records video images of the scene in Kathryn, N.D., near the community hall as water rises on the west side of the town Wednesday, April 15, 2009. The town was almost empty except for the soldiers.Dave Wallis / The Forum

The dam, roughly about 700 feet long, is one of a number of flooding hot spots around North Dakota, where rivers swollen from heavy snow and fall rain have been rising since late March. The flooding has shut down all but the main roads in a number of counties.

In Barnes County, which includes the communities of Valley City and Kathryn, Sheriff Gene Bjerke said most of the township roads are washed out.

"The water is off most of them, but with heavy traffic all over, they're really taking a beating," he said.

The Sheyenne River has flooded parts of Valley City, about 17 miles north of Kathryn, and forced evacuations in the town of Lisbon to the southeast. Valley City Mayor Mary Lee Nielson said the flood danger could persist for weeks.

Darren Bjornson had help from family members and friends in sandbagging the house belonging to his wife's grandmother, Hazel Edlund, in Valley City. Bjornson said he was going to wait out the floodwaters, after adding about 3 feet of sandbags around the house.

"She has lived here for 35 years," he said of Edlund. "And this is the first time we've ever had to do this."

Winnipeg, Fargo on alert The Red River also was flooding some areas in Canada's Manitoba province to the north. Randy Hull, emergency preparedness coordinator in Winnipeg, declared a state of emergency affecting about 240 homes on the riverside of the primary dike that protects the city.

Hull said Thursday the declaration is a precaution that allows officials to respond quickly if evacuations are needed or if they have to gain access to properties.

Roads across North Dakota were flooded and travelers were warned regularly about delays or detours due to high water. Amtrak has suspended service between Minot and St. Paul, Minn., because of track flooding east of Minot.

The Sheyenne empties into the Red River, which is expected to reach a second flood crest of its own near Fargo this week. The Red crested at Fargo and neighboring Moorhead, Minn., late last month just short of 41 feet, after volunteers filled thousands of sandbags to raise levees above that mark. Projections of the river's second crest have been lowered to about 36 feet.