MINOT, North Dakota (Reuters) - Dirty debris-laden Souris River floodwaters were slowly receding on Monday from Minot, North Dakota, where thousands of displaced residents may wait weeks before they can survey extensively damaged homes.
The Souris River flooding smashed a 130-year-old record by nearly 4 feet, rolling over permanent and temporary flood protections five days ago and on Monday leaving traffic jammed on the only route connecting Minot's north and south sides.
A drive that normally takes 15 minutes at most extended to two or three hours or more, said Dean Lenertz, a Minot Fire Department captain and city spokesman.
The river by Monday had pulled back a half foot from the peak reached late Saturday to early Sunday at the Broadway Bridge but it could be weeks before some residents can get a look at the homes they were forced out of on Wednesday.
"It is going to be a very slow process of drying out these wetted areas over the next probably two to three weeks," said Allen Schlag, a National Weather Service hydrologist based in Bismarck, North Dakota.
About 12,000 residents have been displaced by the flooding, but city officials do not have an exact figure. A few hundred people have used Red Cross or other shelters and many have turned to friends, family and neighbors for temporary housing.
Schlag said it may take into July for people to return to areas on the outer fringe of the evacuation zones and most probably would not be able to return to the worst-hit areas for at least two weeks.
"I wouldn't expect the first person being in for at least 10 days to start really getting a good chance to survey and start drying things out," Schlag said.
About 4,100 structures sustained damage, mostly houses, Minot city spokesman Dean Lenertz said on Monday. At least half of the houses have extensive damage, he said.
The Souris, or Mouse, River, flows from Canada southeast into North Dakota in a horse-shoe, curling back into Canada to the northeast and connecting with a Red River tributary.
HEAVY RAINS, MASSIVE SNOW MELT
Heavy rains coupled with a massive snow melt pushed Canadian reservoirs to capacity. In turn, U.S. officials were forced to release water from Lake Darling Dam above Minot at a rate nearly three times as high as flood defenses could bear.
Hundreds of homes also were evacuated outside Minot, North Dakota's fourth largest city, including houses in Burlington, Sawyer and Velva.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has turned to maintenance mainly of levees in Minot and the other communities. It added a ring levee in Minot and ordered National Guard helicopters to drop half-ton sandbags to stop water from seeping on a levee around a Minot school, spokeswoman Shannon Bauer said.
"The longer the high water is against these levees, the more erosion and issues you get with them," Bauer said in a telephone interview.
Several large water breaks forced city officials to urge residents to limit themselves to essential use only. The city is also under an order for water to be boiled and officials were urging residents to drink bottled water.
The floodwater also may bring surprises as it recedes, including mold that would require pulmonary and allergist treatment, Trinity Hospital spokesman Randy Schwan said.
"That rainwater went through homes, gas stations, businesses, farms -- who knows what toxins are in it," Schwan said.
North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple visited a flood recovery center at the Minot City Auditorium on Monday. The auditorium also is the site of one of two Red Cross shelters.
The massive flooding in Minot has overshadowed temporarily the widespread deluge along the Missouri River that threatens cities from Montana through Missouri.
A deep melting snowpack and heavy rains forced federal officials to release record levels of water from six reservoirs along the Upper Missouri River causing widespread flooding.