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Massive Floods Spur Cleanup in MN

Mon June 24, 2002 - Midwest Edition
Lori Lovely


Roseau, MN, had the flood of its life last week, according to Mayor Jeff Pelowski. Flood stage in Roseau is 16 ft. and the city’s levee system was designed to hold back the river only to about 22 ft. The northwestern Minnesota town’s previous record of 21.1 ft. (established in 1996) was broken Tuesday, June 11 when water reached 22.26 ft. The river was at just over 23 ft. by Wednesday morning, with the National Weather Service projecting a crest of 24 ft.

Water rose fast in parts of Roseau when the rain-swollen Roseau River broke through a sandbag dike, spilling into the community of 2,500 people, some 10 mi. (16 km) south of the Canadian border. Minnesota DOT Main Operations Support Engineer Bob Vasek explained that within 24 hours 5 to 18 in. of rain fell on ground that was already saturated. “That area is flat, and there aren’t any existing dikes,” he noted. “People threw up temporary dikes, but the dikes failed. The water rose to 15 ft. in some spots, causing wash-outs on the roads.”

Drains plugged by debris intensified the problem, he added, eliciting many road closures in northwestern Minnesota. Trunk highway 11 between Warroad and Roosevelt, trunk highway 200 between Mahnomen and trunk highway 32, trunk highway 9 between Ada and Felton, trunk highway 113 from the junction of trunk highway 32 east to trunk highway 59 at Wauburn were all closed last week. A caution advisory was issued for trunk highway 9 west in Ada due to standing water on the road.

Flood waters encroached on some homes in Roseau, forcing the police to ask for voluntary evacuations on June 11. Elderly residents and people who live close to the floodwaters were evacuated by bus to Red Cross stations in a nearby town. Although several homes had been lost, Pelowski remained optimistic. Residents managed to save about a quarter of the town’s homes, the electric power substation and its water system.

Many of the 1,800 employees at Polaris Industries Inc.’s plant helped stack sandbags and pump water, according to a Reuter’s report. Polaris, one of the region’s largest employers, designs, engineers, manufactures and markets snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles, Victory motorcycles, watercraft, and the Polaris Ranger for recreational and utility use. After suspending operations at the plant to allow employees an opportunity to attend to their homes, Polaris President and Chief Executive Officer Tom Tiller worked side-by-side with volunteers throughout Tuesday, June 11 sandbagging and pumping water away from the facility.

Members of the Salvation Army, Army Reserve and volunteers stacked sandbags along the river banks and around homes in the community. Gov. Jesse Ventura ordered assistance to the nine surrounding counties in Minnesota’s northwest corner from the National Guard, which responded with two helicopters to shuttle empty sandbags and other supplies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sent water pumps, engineers and 80,000 sandbags.

Beyond Roseau

The heavy storms that dumped a foot of rain on the Red River Valley resulting in severe flooding in Roseau also forced other communities to shore up their dikes, and damaged or destroyed nearly 2-million acres (809,371 ha) of planted crops. Vasek speculated that the extensive overland flooding ruined planting already delayed by a cold spring.

Flooding from the Red River covered roads and fields in nearby parts of northeastern North Dakota and Manitoba, with standing water covering rural roads and farmland. “Acre upon acre of farmland is under water,” said Pembina County, ND, Emergency Manager Becky Ault. A few miles from Roseau in southeastern Manitoba, flooding forced dozens of residents of Sprague to leave town by boat after a bridge washed out.

The situation was slightly better in Warroad — 20 mi. (32 km) east of Roseau — where the Warroad River overflowed its banks on Monday June 10. As early as Tuesday, waters were receding, although the area was still prone to flash floods, according to Vasek. About 20 homes were evacuated.

The heaviest flooding occurred in Norman and Mahnomen counties, where travel was not advised. Farmers had to use boats to reach their houses, and a few residents were stranded as volunteers rushed to fill sandbags in preparation for more rain along the flooded Wild Rice River. Firefighters and volunteers worked feverishly to protect rural homes, downtowns and outlying areas with sandbag walls. The Wild Rice River is expected to crest at between 15 and 16 ft. at Twin Valley, potentially exceeding the river level at that location during the 1997 floods.

About 110 mi. (177 km) to the south and southwest, the situation was improving in Ada, on the Wild Rice and Marsh rivers. The city, protected by a levy, has generators and emergency pumps. Officials there said dikes were holding against the highest water that community had seen since the catastrophic flood of 1997. In April 1997, Ada’s 1,700 residents fled floodwaters in the middle of the night. The city’s homes and businesses, as well as its high school and nursing home, were ruined.

This year, no evacuation was planned, although the city was in a state of emergency after the county received between 5 and 6 in. of rain in a short period Saturday night, pushing the river to its brink. “Where would we evacuate them to?” asked Norman County Emergency Director Kevin Ruud. “Our problem is that we can’t get to people. The roads are washed out completely, isolating them. The number of roads we’ve seen washed out is unbelievable.” He kept a fretful watch on the banks, knowing that if the river broke out, the westward-moving waters would head for Ada.

Another trouble spot was Borup, where officials were using a backhoe to remove debris blocking passage of water under a bridge on Hwy. 9, one of the few open roads in the area. “The biggest problem is all of this farmland is covered over and the roads have been cut in half [by floodwaters], so no one can get anywhere,” said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, who arrived June 16 to help. “A lot of crop is going to be ruined. And it might be too late to plant again.”

A temporary crest was achieved on Namakan Lake by opening the gates at Kettle Falls, allowing water to run into Rainy River, but that could pose problems downstream, where officials at Rainy River, Ontario, were concerned about flooding of a hospital located along the river there. While the river still is about 6 in. lower than it was following a storm on July 31, 2001, the dramatic rise gives cause for concern. The Rainy River has risen 12.4 ft. since Sunday June 9.

Voyageurs National Park Chief Ranger Jim Hummel said the rising water is causing a great deal of debris to be washed into the lake and overcoming buoys and channel markers. Buoys that mark the back channel on Rainy Lake are nearly under water and park officials anticipate that some buoys may begin to drift. Large trees and branches are already floating down the river. In addition, rock and reefs that had previously been exposed are now just below the surface of the water, requiring caution from boaters.

Docks also are being threatened, and several have already been swept away – some that even had boats attached to them. Officials placed barrels on docks at the Thunderbird Lodge and added sandbags. The lodge itself, which is very close to the shoreline and seawall, may require sandbagging.

Koochiching County Sheriff Duane Nelson said four houses are now being threatened by the quickly rising Rapid River near Clementson. “Everything is holding up, but some roads are still under water,” he said. While the rainfall has damaged some county roads in western Koochiching, it’s been nothing compared to reports from Lake of the Woods and other nearby counties, where Vasek says mandatory evacuation orders were issued the week of June 10.

Water reached the bottom of a concrete beam on a bridge on Koochiching County Road 18 near Clementson. There are six to eight major washouts on county roads west of Birchdale, and another 20 to 25 areas where the water has crossed the road and will need to be regraveled. Road crews were replacing culverts last week on county roads off Minnesota Highway 11 that had been completely swept away.

Along the highway, fields have turned into lakes and ditches have become swiftly flowing rivers. Roads under construction earlier are not completely impassable, such as the road leading to Nelson Park on the Rainy River. Deep ruts of a four-wheel drive vehicle could be seen attempting to travel down the road. No damage estimate is available yet because many roads in the western part of the county remain under water.

Vasek said 13 counties (Becker, Beltrami, Clay, Kittson, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Pennington, Polk, Red Lake and Roseau) in northwest Minnesota had been declared state disaster areas by late in the week. By Friday, June 14, President Bush declared the region a federal disaster area, making federal aid available to supplement state and local recovery. Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk, filling in for Gov. Ventura, who’s in China, requested individual assistance, disaster unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, public assistance, hazard mitigation and disaster loans from the Small Business Administration.




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