Flood fighters used 10 half-ton sandbags to finally halt a deluge of overland floodwater from overpowering two culverts Thursday afternoon, thwarting an immediate threat to this U.S.-Canadian border town.
Before the arrival of the 1,000-pound plugs, local volunteers had toiled for about 9 hours, using small sandbags in a seemingly futile attempt to keep the floodwater from eating away at a dirt lane leading from Pembina County Highway 55 to Wayne Newell's farm about two miles southwest of Neche, where he raises crops and livestock.
"We're going to lose it if we don't get it shored up soon," said Lowell Hanson, a construction representative with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before the half-ton sandbags arrived by truck.
"What they were looking to do is to stop the erosion around the culverts," Mayor Lee Beattie said.
They knew what failure could mean.
"In 2006, it washed the culverts right out of the lane," Newell said, sending a flurry of water to Neche, where it lapped at a dike protecting the community of 400.
Newell's parents lived on the farm back then. They left the farm after that flood.
Beattie estimates 90 percent of that water came right at Neche.
Since 2006, Wayne has moved to the farm and those 30-inch culverts have been replaced by two 42-inchers.
This year, water started running over the lane Monday. By Thursday morning, it was washing away large chunks of earth as it tried to move eastward.
Neche is situated in a funnellike depression between Pembina County Highway 55 on the south and the U.S.-Canadian border, where a road-dike on the Canadian side blocks the flow of floodwater from running north. The road-dike runs for about 30 miles along the border, from Pembina to west of Neche.
The threat this week, as in 2006, was not from the Pembina River, but from overland flooding.
Overland flooding in 2006 covered about 80,000 acres of farmland in Pembina County, causing an estimated $635,000 in infrastructure damage.
N.D. Highway 18, which runs north from Neche into Canada, remained open Thursday, even though the flow of water over the road measured two to three inches. While cars and pick-ups were allowed to cross the border, agents on the Canadian side were not allowing large trucks to cross into North Dakota.
"We'll keep it open until it gets deep enough to make it difficult to cross. We've got it marked and signaled," said Richard Parton, Grand Forks District maintenance coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Transportation.
One Manitoba resident crossing the border Thursday into Neche said the land was dry on the Canadian side.
The Pembina River at Neche hit 21.62 feet about 1 p.m. Thursday, according to the National Weather Service. Officials said it may be cresting.
The river hit 21.41 feet in 2006. The record crest is 24.51 feet, set in 1997.
North Dakota National Guard troops stationed in nearby Cavalier, N.D., were on duty late Thursday and through the night to watch for leaks.
"They're doing some patrolling for us, so we can get some sleep," Beattie said.
But Newell, who has to tend to his cattle, and his neighbors, won't be resting easy anytime soon.
"Until the river drops a couple of feet, it'll be like this," he said. "The weather service says that could be a couple of weeks. I hope they're wrong."