Flooding challenges but efforts stand

Published 6:10 pm Tuesday, June 25, 2024

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Despite a deluge, area largely avoids major damages


As area rivers began receding early Sunday morning and throughout the day, assessments were finally being made by those directly affected by flooding caused by heavy rains from Thursday into Saturday.

Jane Crowley, owner of Stuttgart Tan & Travel, was one of those who was finally able to get back into her business Sunday to begin clean-up after flood waters completely surrounded the business with no sandbags in place.

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“We had three feet on the main floor and everything in the basement is floating,” Crowley said Sunday afternoon. “We had no warning.”

While people were able to begin inserting sandbags around structures ahead of advancing waters later in the afternoon Saturday, Crowley had no such luxury. Water from the Cedar River was already into the intersection of Oakland Ave. East and Fourth Street Saturday morning and continued to quickly rise throughout the day.

Volunteers began clean-up work at Stuttgart Tan & Travel Sunday afternoon as flood waters retreated across Austin. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Across the street, the water was also threatening the Hardy Geranium as well as the near-by Salvation Army where volunteers were moving goods from the main building to higher ground in another part of the building.

Across from the Salvation Army, volunteers there put sandbags at key points around El Parral where the Cedar was encroaching. The turbulent waters had already filled the Riverside Arena parking lot at the point.

Elsewhere, some homes were also filling precautionary sandbags with some homeowners installing them around homes as waters flowed across Lions Park. Further east on Oakland Place SE sand barriers were placed around Hoot and Ole’s Tavern and Huffman Flooring Design Center.

Crowley was doubly impacted as volunteers were going back and forth from Stuttgart’s to her home along Dobbins Creek, which was also threatened by that river’s swelling.

She said that they placed sandbags on the levy to further guard against the rising water.

“Good people saved me,” she said.

While the flooding had adverse effects on the community, requiring clean-up of businesses and basements, many see this flood event as something that could have been much worse if it wasn’t for flood mitigation efforts over the last three decades, efforts that became more intense in the years following the record 2004 flood event.

“The challenge, certainly a daunting challenge, was that Mother Nature whipped up a great amount of rain in a short amount of time,” said Major Steve King. “The city infrastructure from our investment was up to the challenge.”

Rains began falling on already saturated ground Thursday night into Saturday morning. On Saturday morning, city crews and emergency officials began forming plans for street closures as water from the Cedar River began creeping across the intersection of Oakland Avenue East and Fourth Street NE.

In a testament to how quickly water levels were rising, that same intersection and a large swath of Oakland Avenue into Oakland Place SE were completely covered by Saturday afternoon.

Several large parts of Austin were quickly inundated throughout the day, including Bandshell Park and Lafayette Park with Bandshell being flooded clear up to the base of Skinner’s Hill. Water there had also threatened homes along Main Street heading north from the parks.

The scope of the flooding was extensive, but the water largely went where it was supposed to go because of those flood mitigation efforts.

Onlooker look over the rising water at Lafayatte Park as it flows into Marcusen Park Saturday. Photo courtesy of Kevin Hanson

“Our flood mitigation on North Main Street, flood walls and berms, generally worked well,” said Assistant City Engineer Mitch Wenum. “They did what they were supposed to do.”

“Our flood control on Turtle Creek worked as designed and worked well,” he added. “That and our flood buyouts we’ve done over the year mitigated the effects of the flood impacts.”

That also goes for county projects developed and implemented by the Mower Soil and Conservation District and Cedar River Watershed District to help stem the tide of flooding. According to Director Cody Fox, the rains that fell Friday and Saturday were good tests for that infrastructure, which includes retention ponds.

“With that said, they easily stood the test as we built the projects to withstand at least the 100-year event,” Fox said. “My estimation based on seeing effects of numerous projects is the event was close to a 20-25 year event.”

In particular, Fox said that the Dobbins Creek area, which came close to record heights, took large amounts of water, including one retention area that held 140 acre feet of water. Fox compared that to 140 football fields with a foot of water on them.

“Long story short, I was very pleased how the projects worked since it had been a while seeing them function,” Fox said. “We still have work to do and are working towards our goal of 20% flow reduction on the 100-year event. We are at 14% now.”

However, that’s not to say everything went smoothly as heavy rains added to pressures on Saturday and caused flash flooding. In one instance a person had to be rescued from a vehicle stranded on North Main Street.

“The pumps that pump the water from the non-river side of the flood wall were a little slow to keep up,” Wenum said. “There was some street flooding.”

A car sits stranded on Main Street North after rapidly rising water caught vehicle due to afternoon rains adding to an already saturated situation. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Flooding wasn’t contained to the City of Austin. Mower County had its own impacts, particularly early on in the event.

Rising waters closed portions of Interstate 90 in Mower County and other places throughout southeastern Minnesota as well as in portions clear across the southern part of the state. Water also affected roads throughout the county and in one instance the Austin Fire Department had to rescue someone from a car, who had attempted to drive through water that was up to the headlights.

The rescue came around 8 a.m. Saturday morning on County 46 running along Interstate 90. Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik said the person had been stranded in the car for approximately 30 minutes before AFD could reach them.

“We’ve stopped and warned a lot of people about driving around barricades,” Sandvik said Saturday.

In LeRoy, Sandvik said the Upper Iowa River was on the rise and threatened to close County 14 on the north edge of the community. Sandvik said that on the east side of town water had risen to within 20-30 yards of homes.

It was a familiar story told in Austin.

“Our law enforcement impacts in Austin involved some people going around barricades and having car trouble,” Austin Police Department Chief David McKichan. “We also helped track and manage road closures during the morning as the rivers rose.”

Minnesota Public Radio reported on Sunday afternoon that according to observations collected by its observer network, the National Weather Service indicated that Austin had received 6.5 inches of rain, however, there were isolated reports of around 8 inches or more of rain.

Those observations were taken over Thursday into Saturday.

At its height the Cedar River in Austin crested at 20.6 feet, five feet below the record set in 2004 of 25 feet. Near Lansing the Cedar crested at 19.84 feet and south of Austin it crested at 20.58 feet. Turtle Creek crested at 12.64 feet and Dobbins at 17.56 feet.