BISMARCK, N.D. — The threat of a possible dam failure on a river near a northeastern North Dakota city eased on Thursday, and officials said most of the 1,300 evacuated residents would be allowed to return to their homes within 24 hours.
"To say that we are breathing an enormous sigh of relief is an understatement," Cavalier Mayor Kenneth Briese said. "We came within inches of losing our town."
The residents of Cavalier were told to leave Tuesday night while crews built an emergency levee to shore up a dam on the Tongue River, six miles west of the city.
Five days of steady rain had led to a 17-foot rise in the lake behind Renwick Dam, causing fears that the emergency spillway at the earth-and-concrete dam would be overwhelmed and unleash water downstream, flooding rural farmsteads and the city.
The water had dropped by about a foot by sunrise Thursday, Pembina County Emergency Manager Andrew Kirking said. The decline was continuing at a rate of about 1 1/4 inches per hour, prompting the decision to allow most residents back home at 7 a.m. Friday, Kirking said.
"We want to make it clear, they are still in somewhat of a dangerous situation, with overland flooding, and the flooding has not receded off the emergency levee," he said. "We do want them to come in to monitor their homes, with the understanding that they may need to evacuate again," should conditions worsen.
The National Weather Service says there is rain in the Memorial Day weekend forecast, but Kirking said officials do not view that as a threat.
"The water is headed down at this point but it will be several days before we can call it partially normal," Briese said. "We're keeping our heads above water, and we want to keep it that way."
About five dozen patients from a hospital, nursing home and assisted living facility in Cavalier are not being allowed back until the lake returns to normal levels. That is not expected to happen for a week to 10 days, Kirking said. They've been taken to care facilities in surrounding communities or to the homes of relatives.
When Cavalier residents return home, they'll be asked to restrict their water use because the city's wastewater system is already stressed by floodwaters flowing into storm drains and residents pumping water out their basements, Kirking said.
Between Friday and Tuesday, downpours dumped about 9 inches of rain on parts of Pembina County.
In Crystal, a town of about 160 residents about 15 miles south of Cavalier, six families evacuated their homes Tuesday when the town was flooded by rain runoff. The water was receding Thursday.
"Their situation is improving dramatically," Kirking said. "We have ordered in several cleaning kits from the American Red Cross in Grand Forks, to help citizens begin the cleanup process."
Crystal Mayor Larry McCollum said all of the families who left their homes had returned Thursday. The threat to the town was easing, but "everybody around here was pretty scared," he said.
In neighboring Walsh County, the swelling Park River crested at Grafton about midnight Wednesday at 16.2 feet – just shy of a record – and began to recede, said Katie Dietz, administrative assistant in the county's Emergency Management Office.
Officials there earlier in the week had fortified levees to protect the city of about 4,500 people.
"Everything is holding," Dietz said Thursday.
Associated Press Writer James MacPherson contributed to this story.
Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake
Follow James MacPherson on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/macphersonja