Duluth cleans up as Minn. floods persist to south

June 21, 2012 - 9:05 PM

Minnesota Flooding

In this aerial photo, waters from an overflowing nearby creek inundate homes in the Irving Park neighborhood of Duluth, Minn., Wednesday afternoon, June 20, 2012. Residents evacuated their homes and animals escaped from pens at a zoo as floods fed by a steady torrential downpour struck northeastern Minnesota, inundating the city of Duluth, officials said Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Duluth News-Tribune, Bob King)

DULUTH, Minn. (AP) — Nicole Lamphier and her family planned to ride out the flooding inundating their Duluth neighborhood at a friend's home nearby, but when they ran out of diapers for their 9-month-old, they called in the Coast Guard to get them out.

Lamphier, her husband and three young children were evacuated by boat Thursday from their low-lying neighborhood of Fon du Lac, where about 200 residents who left for higher ground during and after two days of historically heavy rain don't know when it'll be safe to return home.

"The damage is indescribable," said Lamphier, 30. "It's kind of heartbreaking. You see people down there that have lost everything. I'm just glad to be out."

City, county and state officials spent Thursday assessing damage, while areas farther south continued to fight rising waters. The town of Moose Lake was being described as "an island."

Gov. Mark Dayton, who toured flood-ravaged areas Thursday, said he was committed to providing state resources, and would work to speed the process of getting appropriate federal aid. Duluth's mayor, Don Ness, estimated that there was $50 million to $80 million in damage caused to the city's public infrastructure alone.

The Fond du Lac neighborhood still had standing water Thursday, and nearly 80 roads around St. Louis County remained closed at midday.

"It's just horrific to see the wipeouts of whole roads that I've been traveling on for years," Dayton said.

The state later took the first formal step toward seeking a presidential disaster declaration by asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send preliminary damage assessment teams. The teams will hit the ground next week to begin tallying the damage to public infrastructure in 14 counties and one Indian reservation in areas affected by recent storms and flooding statewide, including northeastern and southeastern Minnesota. A disaster declaration would release federal funds for assistance programs for victims and affected communities, as well as state government.

Despite the extensive damage, no deaths or serious injuries were reported in Minnesota, which Dayton called "remarkable." Three people died in crashes in central Wisconsin early Thursday after heavy rain washed away a 50-foot stretch of highway.

Lamphier said she saw tipped over cars in her neighborhood, floating sheds, smashed decks and a neighbor's yard that now looked like a "raging river."

"Yesterday it was kind of like 'Oh my God, we are going to lose everything,'" Lamphier said. "Now I'm just thankful my kids are OK."

Mike Smith was one of many Fond du Lac neighbors who went up to the police barricades Thursday to see when he might be able to return home. Police had no answers.

"I'm frustrated," said Smith, 75. "Of course you don't know the condition of anything at this point, and that's not human nature to accept that. ... I'm a doer. I'm not a couch potato, so I'm getting antsy."

He had to abandon his van while trying to evacuate because it stalled on a water-covered road — the current was so strong it pushed his van about a block, he said.

"It's not safe," Deputy Police Chief Robin Roeser said of the area.

The National Weather Service in Duluth said there's no significant rainfall in the forecast for at least the next few days, but many rivers and streams in northeast Minnesota would remain above flood stage well into next week as water continues to flow downstream.

Moose Lake, a town of about 2,900 people 40 miles southwest of Duluth, declared a state of emergency as rising water swamped one road after another. The state's Department of Public Safety characterized the town as "an island."

City Administrator Mark Vahlsing said at least 30 percent of the town on Moosehead Lake was flooded and that many homes and businesses had problems with standing water. About 20 families evacuated voluntarily.

"I would say it's the worst flooding the city has ever seen," Vahlsing said.

In nearby Sturgeon Lake, Pine County authorities rescued a man after floodwaters swept his panel truck off a highway. Near the town of Rutledge, deputies in a boat rescued an elderly man from his trailer after floodwaters knocked it off its foundation.

"It's still a flash flood situation here, and we don't know where it will pop," said Pine County Chief Deputy Steve Blackwell. "We're just trying to anticipate problem areas."

Blackwell said the areas worst affected were close to swollen streams, rivers and lakes. The National Weather Service said official rain totals show 7.2 inches of rain fell on Duluth Tuesday and Wednesday, breaking a two-day record set in July 1909. There were reports of up to 10 inches rainfall in some areas.

Many state parks and recreational areas were temporarily closed to visitors in a region that relies heavily on tourism. The assistant manager at Savanna Portage State Park, where seven campers were stranded for a night but able to leave Thursday afternoon, said the 16,000-acre park would remain closed at least through the weekend.

Despite the cleanup ahead, St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson said as the Independence Day holiday looms, officials want tourists to know the region is open for business.

The Red Cross said nearly 200 people stayed in shelters overnight in Duluth. About 250 residents of the city's Fond du Lac neighborhood were told to evacuate Wednesday night, but 49 of them stayed put, St. Louis County Emergency Services Manager Scott Camps said.

Officials said the rise and fall of the floodwaters was unpredictable and that many areas saw numerous crests. Authorities in Duluth and in rural areas in the region were warning people to stay away from streams and culverts and to not under any circumstances drive around barricades or through flooded parts of roads. Officials in most areas said they expected flooding problems to persist at least into the coming weekend, and they were praying for continued sunny weather.

After his tour, Dayton said a special legislative session could be an option to respond to flood damage. He said the region's economy could take a hit with paper mills and taconite plants affected by flooding.

Dayton said he would do everything he could to make sure that state and federal aid flowed quickly, but he warned people they would have to be patient.

"I wish there were a magic wand and all these roads could be repaired," Dayton said.

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Condon reported from Minneapolis.