The Souris River neared a lower-than-expected crest Saturday in Minot, where city officials hoped to ride out the high water without losing more than the thousands of homes already damaged by flooding.
The river had been expected to peak early on Sunday at some 8½ feet above major flood stage, but it leveled off hours earlier and the National Weather Service dropped the projection by nearly 2 feet as upstream flows weakened.
It was a brief boost for a city that has already taken a heavy blow. Mayor Curt Zimbelman said more than 4,000 homes had been flooded in an evacuation zone of neighborhoods nearest the river. About 11,000 people were ordered out earlier this week.
Sgt. 1st Class David Dodds, a spokesman for North Dakota's National Guard, said the situation had "kind of stabilized" Saturday. The Souris' channel wasn't getting any wider.
"The fact that more homes aren't being engulfed or being touched by the water, that's the one silver lining if you can even say there is one," Dodds said.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he was encouraged.
"It looks to me like, barring any rainfall ... the (flood-fighting) plan looks like it's holding up very well," he said.
Zimbelman and others had fretted about rain in the forecast, but the National Weather Service said the storms didn't appear to be widespread or long-lasting.
But on Saturday evening, heavy rain and lightning were reported around Minot, and tornado sirens went off in Minot and Burlington, NBC News reported.
City spokesman Dean Lenertz said updated estimates of the flood's toll were being prepared. The city's water, sewer and electric power systems were still working. Workers labored to keep the Broadway Bridge, a major north-south thoroughfare, from being overwhelmed, a possibility that would divide the city in half.
Fed by heavy rains upstream and dam releases that have accelerated in recent days, the Souris surged past a 130-year-old record Friday and kept going.
Dalrymple spoke Saturday to flood evacuees at shelters at Minot State University's Dome, an indoor track and basketball arena, and at the City Auditorium. Thirty-seven people stayed at Minot State's shelter Friday night, and 237 people bedded down at the auditorium, the governor said.
The Minot State shelter was virtually deserted Saturday morning. One evacuee dozed among rows of cots lined up neatly on the dome's indoor track.
Dalrymple and his wife, Betsy, listened to Les and Jacque Younger, 30-year Minot residents whose home had been dry just a few days ago.
"We have about a foot, I think, to a foot and a half before (the flood water) goes to the second floor, and that's what I'm trying to save," Jacque Younger said. The couple, who had lived in their home four years, said they also lost a van to the water.
Minot State cancelled classes next week. President David Fuller, who was biking around campus to check on conditions, said classes wouldn't resume until after July 4 and only if the Broadway Bridge was open.
"Even then, we're going to have to reassess to see how that's going to impact the students' work in their classes," Fuller said.
Helping victimsThe Federal Emergency Management Agency pledged assistance to flood victims in Burleigh and Ward counties, which include Minot and Bismarck, the state capital, which has been damaged by Missouri River flooding. Sens. Kent Conrad and John Hoeven and Rep. Rick Berg had pushed for the aid in a call to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and said they hoped it would be extended to other flood-ravaged counties.
Hoeven said a helicopter flight over the Souris valley showed damage to smaller cities around Minot.
In nearby Burlington, more than half of the town's 1,000 residents left late this week to escape the Souris. In Velva, a small town about 20 miles downstream of Minot, emergency levees were being built in anticipation of an expected crest on Tuesday.
Sawyer, a town of about 350 people, was under a mandatory evacuation order Saturday after the Souris flowed over the main dike around daybreak. National Guard soldiers worked on a secondary levee. Mayor Cy Kotaska said about three homes had been flooded
The National Guard activated 870 members for the crisis. Minot is best known as home to an Air Force base responsible for 150 Minuteman III missiles in underground launch silos scattered over 8,500 square miles in northwest North Dakota.
Col. S.L. Davis, commander of the 91st Missile Wing, said there was some "localized flooding" at a handful of missiles sites because of the wet spring and summer. But he said the silos are designed to safely handle some water and protective measures were taken at a few sites similar to what's done in preparation for spring runoff from snowmelt.
Meanwhile, Leon Delker, 55, who lives nine blocks from the river, brought in a survey crew that estimated the water would rise 3 feet on his front door. He planned to remove everything but the American flag in front of his home and "stay out until this thing is over."
Some residents took refuge on the Souris River Golf Course, where longtime pro Steve Kottsick, 59, pieced together a makeshift 8-hole layout on the flooded course. More than 30 people took their swings on Thursday.
"People are a little down and out," Kottsick said. "Hopefully it helps them maintain some sense of normality."
The city's other 18-hole golf course, the Minot Country Club, lost its clubhouse Thursday.
Amtrak has suspended Empire Builder passenger train service in part of Minnesota, North Dakota and eastern Montana due to flooding.
Shelters openThe Red Cross has set up shelters at the Minot Auditorium and at Minot State University for displaced residents. A couple of hundred people have used them so far, but that number is expected to increase.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been studying the housing needs in the area, but an official said as of Thursday night that they had ruled out bringing in trailers.
Many residents have moved in with friends or family and stored furniture from vacated homes at an area ice arena, temporary storage facilities and in garages across the city.
The massive flooding at Minot has overshadowed temporarily the widening deluge along the Missouri River that threatens cities from Montana through Missouri.
Federal officials have pushed record water releases from six reservoirs along the Upper Missouri River that are near capacity because of a deep melting snowpack and heavy rains.
Those reservoirs have little capacity for additional rain and record releases are expected to continue through August, causing widespread flooding in Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri.