The Souris River is set to overtop levees in Minot, displacing about a quarter of the North Dakota city's population for a second time this spring and threatening to swamp thousands of homes under the worst flooding in four decades.
"We could have a really catastrophic type of event here," Mayor Curt Zimbelman said during a late Monday news conference, calling it "a sad day for Minot." The Minot Daily News reported that his comments were met by stunned silence.
The river that loops down from Canada through north central North Dakota is bloated by heavy spring snowmelt and rain on both sides of the border in recent days.
The flooding in Minot, where about 41,000 people live, is now expected to dwarf the historic flood of 1969, when the river reached 1,554.5 feet above sea level. The river is expected to hit nearly 1,563 feet this weekend, according to the National Weather Service.
The 1969 flood prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to build a dike system that has been beefed up several times this spring.
Zimbelman told KFGO radio on Tuesday that there is not enough time to raise the dikes any more to handle the fresh onslaught of water from recent heavy rains, and that at least 4,000 homes and businesses could be flooded. He said it was not easy to tell the community that flood-protection efforts have failed and thousands of homes could end up under water.
"It's probably one of the more difficult things I've had to do," he said. "We're not used to losing ... I think people understood there was not much we could do about it."
Some 12,000 people have until Wednesday night to clear out.
Zimbelman said officials are focusing efforts on building dikes to protect critical infrastructure such as the sewer system, water plants, schools and City Hall. Similar efforts are being done in the nearby town of Burlington, where about 1,200 people live.
About 10,000 Minot residents were evacuated earlier this month before the river hit 1,554.1 feet and then later let back into their homes, though they were cautioned to be ready to leave again quickly. They have been ordered out again by Wednesday night. Zimbelman said officials are considering enlarging the evacuation zone.
"We are going to become a pool or a lake," Zimbelman said in comments reported by KXMC-TV. "It is hard to accept and believe."
All residents along the river in Ward County also are being urged to leave, including those in Burlington.
The high water is expected to begin hitting Minot by about Thursday, with the river jumping more than seven feet by Saturday. The historical record of 1,558 feet set in 1881 is forecast to be topped on Friday or Saturday. River flows are expected to hit 17,000 cubic feet per second, when the dikes are built to handle only about 11,000 cfs.
"This will be much, much higher than we've ever seen before in history," Gov. Jack Dalrymple said during a visit to Minot on Monday.