Flooding threatens east-central Minnesota, days after downpours

Published 9:40 am Friday, July 15, 2016

By Dan Kraker

MPR.org/90.1 FM

DULUTH — Several communities in east-central Minnesota are still dealing with floodwaters three days after torrential rains drenched much of the region.

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The storm dumped six inches of rain or more across a 2,000-square-mile area, resulting in the state’s largest flash-flood event in the last four years.

The rain fell in sheets Monday night. One weather observer near Cloverton, Minn., in eastern Pine County near the Wisconsin border, recorded 9.34 inches in a 24-hour period.

The deluge funneled into rivers like the Mississippi and the Kettle, and also into the Snake, where Kanabec County Sheriff Brian Smith says it’s surging through the town of Grasston.

“Right here, we’ve probably got 40 volunteers ranging from little kids to adults with trucks and trailers bringing sandbags,” Smith said. “They’re standing in waist-deep flood water, trying to build a dike around a home, trying to save that home from being destroyed.”

Residents have been fighting floodwaters since Tuesday morning, Smith said. About 30 roads are closed across Kanabec County. And many homes and cabins have been damaged or destroyed.

One of the hardest-hit areas is Fish Lake, where earlier on Thursday, Smith said, the water was rising three inches per hour. The lake has crested now, but some homes are still in danger of flooding.

“Basically, they have sandbags and pumps keeping the water at bay,” Smith said. “So they’ve been working through the night for the last two days, two nights, trying to keep that water away from their homes.”

Farther north, more than a half-million gallons of untreated sewage poured into Moosehead Lake when the town of Moose Lake’s sewer system became inundated with flood waters.

On Wednesday, Willow River issued a voluntary evacuation order when high water flowed over the top of the town’s dam. Water levels have since dropped, but about 30 homes in town were flooded, including Mayor Tom Jensen’s.

Jensen had five feet of water in the lower level of his house, despite being a third of a mile from the Kettle River.

“All the low-lying backwaters end up flooding because the river gets so high,” Jensen said. “I have a pond down by my place, but that pushed that pond up about 15 feet of water.”

Pine and Kanabec counties have each approved resolutions requesting state disaster assistance. The Snake River is expected to crest above flood stage this weekend before receding.

And the National Park Service has closed boat landings along the St. Croix River because of the surge of rainwater upstream.

Amy Frischmon, vice president of Taylors Falls Recreation, which runs scenic boat tours and rents canoes and kayaks on the river, said she’s had to cancel several events during her peak season because of the water levels.

“It is unprecedented to have spring-like conditions and this high of water in mid-summer,” she said. “In fact, when I was talking to the National Park Service this morning, they called it a thousand-year flood. They’ve never seen the river go up this high as quickly from one event.”