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Published April 12, 2009, 10:55 PM

Life at the High Water Cafe

Pembina lunch counter serves home-cooked fare to flood fighters
If anybody volunteered to walk the dikes in Pembina, N.D., as a way to shed some of those winter pounds, they better be marching right past the High Water Cafe.

By: Kevin Bonham, Grand Forks Herald

PEMBINA, N.D. — If anybody volunteered to walk the dikes in Pembina, N.D., as a way to shed some of those winter pounds, they better be marching right past the High Water Cafe.

That’s the name of the lunch counter at the Pembina Community Center, which serves as the local Emergency Operations Center for this community’s 2009 flood fight.

For nine days now, volunteers from the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 77 have been serving up a 24-hour, seven-day buffet of savory homemade cooking that puts most restaurant Sunday smorgasbords to shame.

Pork chop dinners in the evening. A vast array of hot dishes the following day. Salads. Vegetables. And enough caramel rolls and other pastries to feed a small army, which is what the women of the American Legion Auxiliary have been doing.

The High Water Cafe has been part of Pembina’s spring flood fight since 1996.

This year, the North Dakota National Guard has been stationed in this town of 600 for more than a week, pitching in to help local volunteers patrol earthen dikes along the Red River.

Too complacent?

Except for the presence of National Guard equipment, more than a dozen soldiers and other dike walkers, who carry on a friendly banter, visitors might not know that there’s a flood happening on the other side of the floodwall and dikes protecting this community.

“People sometimes tell us we’re too complacent,” said John Feldman, Pembina City Council president and a member of the local flood committee. “We’re not. We’ve been doing this for so many years, we know what to do. We react to the National Weather Service predictions and go from there.”

The Red River now is forecast to crest Saturday at 52.5 feet. Until Sunday, the weather service had said the river could crest today at Pembina. The river was at 52.24 feet late Sunday night. Pembina's permanent dike is at 57.3 feet.

10 evacuations

Fewer than 10 elderly residents voluntarily left town until the flood season is over.

That could be a while. Like other places in the Red River Valley, Pembina faces a probably second crest or an extended crest period that could last until late April.

The Pembina flood committee is hosting a meeting at 7 tonight in the remodeled Community Center.

“We were hoping we’d be crested by then,” Feldman said. “We’ll talk about what might be coming from the west. Our biggest concern is that it’s going to be higher than this crest.”

Overland flooding

The Weather Service raised the flood forecasts on the Pembina River and extended flood warnings at Walhalla and Neche, N.D., over the weekend.

The river now is forecast to rise above flood stage by Tuesday night at both locations.

In Walhalla, it is expected to rise to between 12 and 14 feet by April 20 to 24, with additional rises possible after that time. Flood stage is 11 feet, with minor damage occurring.

In Neche, the river is forecast to rise to between 20 and 21 feet by April 21 and 28. Flood stage is at 18 feet. At 19.5 to 20 feet, water threaten N.D. Highway 18, the main entrance into the community.

“If we hit 19.6, then we could have some problems,” said Scott Reck, flood coordinator for the city of Neche.

Meanwhile, water is spreading overland all around Pembina, throughout Pembina and Kittson counties, surrounding ring dikes protecting rural homes and businesses.

Pembina County Road 55 was closed late last week between Neche, N.D., and the Interstate 29 interchange at Pembina. On Saturday, the county closed a 5-mile stretch of Pembina County Road 2, between County Road 1 and County Road 55 because of water damage on the road.

The Pembina River flows from Manitoba past Walhalla, N.D., and Neche before emptying into the Red at Pembina.

Over in Pembina, flood fighters are not overly concerned.

“We’re keeping track of it,” Feldman said. “We’ll deal with it when it comes.”

In the meantime, there’s plenty of food and plenty of room to visit at Pembina’s High Water Cafe.

Reach Bonham at (701) 780-1110; (800) 477-6572, ext. 110; or send e-mail to