MINOT, N.D. – When the Souris River swamped their home as it roared through Minot, the Schaan family could have taken refuge in a shelter. Instead, they headed to Walmart, plunked down $54 on a new tent and joined hundreds of others in a makeshift campground outside the city ice rink.
"We wanted to go camping all summer, but not like this," said Galen Schaan, 48, a burly but soft-spoken man who works as a roughneck in North Dakota's oil patch.
As the Souris forced more than 10,000 people from their homes in the past week, many found refuge with family or friends. A few hundred opted for shelters run by the Red Cross or churches. But hundreds more have chosen the same route as the Schaans, camping out in tents, RVs or simply living in their cars in shopping center parking lots and parks that are unaffected by high water.
More than 60 people have been staying for the past week at the Maysa Arena, mostly in RVs and tents, though some were sleeping inside. Outside, the grounds are full of obviously new tents like the Schaans', and the scene looks like any campground: children riding bicycles and playing, dogs tied up on leashes, barbecue grills smoking next to coolers of food and generators humming.
The children seemed oblivious this week to National Guard helicopters thumping overhead, carrying 1,000-pound sandbags to help protect a nearby school at risk of flooding, and laughed often. Among adults, smiles were far less frequent.
"Nobody is out here because they want to be," said Chuck Benjamin, 48, who lost his home to flooding and was living in a tent with his three dogs, Buster, Bear and Cornflake.
"We've got to make the best of a bad situation because this is not going to be fixed overnight," he said. "This town has a long road ahead."
The Army Corps of Engineers has said it doesn't expect any further damage in Minot, barring a levee failure or heavy rains upstream. The level of the Souris has been moving steadily downward from a weekend peak nearly 4 feet above a 130-year-old record. Yet officials have warned about overconfidence as the river recedes slowly, and the Corps has said it won't consider the situation safe until mid-July.
Minot is in for a long recovery even if it loses no other homes. A Federal Emergency Management Agency Survey found 4,100 homes damaged, including 805 under more than 10 feet of water and 2,400 under at least 6 feet. Mayor Curt Zimbelman said demolition may be the only answer for nearly one-fifth of the damaged homes.
At the ice arena, one rink remains open but the other has been converted to store household goods, and at least 65 families are keeping belongings there, manager Chuck Emery said. Reptiles and aquatic creatures from the flooded city zoo are being kept in the basement. Some 13 mobile homes towed off flood-threatened lots are being stored outside.
Church groups and businesses have been providing food and hosting nightly cookouts for the flood refugees.
The Schaans, who are camping with their three teenage children, expect to lose their home. Galen Schaan said he had heard homes in his neighborhood were under at least 8 feet of water. When the family left last week, they didn't want to stay in a shelter because animals aren't allowed and they couldn't bear leaving their cat, Fido, in someone else's care.
"She's family, too," Teresa said.
Eleven-year-old Julian Ramirez said he has been having fun roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, although he was sad that his elementary school had flooded — one of three schools in town damaged by the high water.
His mother, Ivonne Ramirez, 29, a recent Minot transplant from Modesto, Calif., said it was the first time she had been camping in her life — and it wasn't by choice.
"When the dikes broke we had to pitch our tent," said Ramirez, who had to take unpaid time off of work as a hotel housekeeper to care for her son. Her boyfriend, Edward Poitra, said the family had little money and their car had only enough gasoline to travel about 30 miles.
Retirees Calvin and Carol McFarlen were camping after their home flooded, recalling memories for Calvin of the city's last big flood in 1969. He was a National Guard soldier then and helped place sandbags around town.
"This one is a little worse than the '69 flood. Well, maybe quite a bit worse," Calvin said. The couple's home took water in the basement back then; now it's nearly submerged, and they have no flood insurance.
The couple does have a 33-foot motor home, which they bought about three years ago and hadn't gotten around to traveling in before now. They had even been considering selling the RV, but held off when they saw the forecast for spring flooding.
"I'm glad we didn't. It's been a lifesaver," Carol McFarlen said.
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