DULUTH - U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack on Friday toured the extensive damage from the week's flash flooding, as local and state officials prepare to make a case for a presidential disaster declaration and federal help in repairing roads, underground infrastructure, businesses and homes.

Meanwhile, Aitkin County became the latest government to declare a flood emergency, warning residents that the Mississippi River is over flood stage in Aitkin and is expected to crest there early next week at 20 feet, which would be the second-highest crest on record.

Floodwaters slowly receded in Moose Lake, Willow River and other communities south and west of Duluth,

"It's gone down two steps," said Moose Lake resident Bill Carlson, measuring the water's height against his basement stairs. Carlson took a lunch break in his back yard Friday afternoon as a pump spit water from his basement onto the street.

In Barnum, where 588 residents were evacuated, streets were clear for traffic, and residents of Carlton were being allowed to return to their homes, according to the Carlton County Sheriff's Office.

However, all of Thomson remained off-limits, and most roads in Esko were closed.

Jay Cooke State Park will be closed at least until July because the portion of Hwy. 210 that runs through it washed out, said Cheri Zeppelin, a state Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman. The swinging bridge across the river was earlier reported as washed out, but most of it is still there, she said. Crews are evaluating damage and costs.

United they stood  

Northeastern Minnesota's congressional delegation, after surveying damage, pledged to work with the Obama administration to get federal aid to the region as soon as possible.

Standing with Duluth Mayor Don Ness on a washed-out section of Duluth's West Skyline Parkway, Klobuchar, Franken and Cravaack said the damage seen on their bus tour will easily top the $7.5 million threshold for federal aid to rebuild public infrastructure, such as storm sewers and roads.

Klobuchar said damage assessors from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be in Duluth by Monday to help local and state officials compile hard damage estimates to aid Gov. Mark Dayton in seeking a formal disaster declaration from the White House.

All three members of Congress said they were moved by the extent of the runoff damage and also by the survival stories, such as that of the 8-year-old boy who was sucked into a culvert and popped out blocks away, asking for his mother.

"I want to meet that kid," said Cravaack, a Republican, who joined with the Democratic senators in a nonpartisan show of support for the battered region.

"We've seen so many washouts that Chip is now Representative Crevasse," Franken cracked.

Klobuchar said the damage to Duluth's Lake Superior Zoo, which was among the places they were shown Friday, also was remarkable. More than a dozen barnyard animals died in the deluge, and a seal escaped and had to be rounded up.

"Because of the zoo, this story has captured not just national but world attention," she said.

Extra water included

The for-sale Moose Lake getaway of writer Robert Bly was among those hit by the rising waters of the Moose Horn River this week. On Friday afternoon, lake water lapped at the basement windows.

The modern-looking home usually sits on the shores of Moosehead Lake, not in it.

"It could go back on the market after it's fixed up. It could go back on the market as is," said real estate agent Ernie Gertzen. "Nobody knows how much damage there is."

The worst of the flood passed through Willow River Thursday, filling basements along its main street. Water destroyed paper records going back more than a century at the Willow River Mercantile, but stopped 2 inches shy of the mercantile's ground floor, said owner Bruce Bohaty.

The town general store for generations of locals, the Mercantile's aisles of groceries, hardware and household goods were mostly spared.

He thought the waters would wipe him out on Thursday, he said, but late in the day the water started dropping.

Lost in the basement storage area were 46 years of posters Bohaty had saved from the town's annual fishing contest.

"We get high water occasionally, but we've never had water in the basement here," he said. "Never in 100 years."

Inmates from the state prison at Willow River worked side by side with teenagers, mothers and children volunteering for the sandbagging effort at Moose Lake.

"Let's go, guys," said one guard as the men filled bags. "You've only got 60,000 more!"

"It's actually good to be out here helping the community," said Gregory Wright, 31, who's finishing a 14-month sentence for drug dealing. "I feel good helping." He has 53 days left in prison before he returns to his family in Chicago, he said.

Prisoner Arnold Latare, 31, said he knew the feeling of hopelessness that a flood brings. His family lost its home in the 1993 Mississippi River flood when the waters rose in his West Des Moines neighborhood.

"I know what the people are going through," said Latare, who was sentenced to nearly a year in prison for four DWIs. The first three came in quick succession after he returned from Iraq, where he had served as an Army engineer.

He filled bags with sand while a woman from Moose Lake tied them off. The experience left him with a lasting memory.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said of going out to work in the community. "She just sat down right next to us and started tying. And I told her 'Thank you for tying because I don't like tying. I'd rather just fill,' and she was like, 'No, thank you, you don't know how much we appreciate it.'

"And then they're just talking and joking, and I don't even know what was said, but it was just light conversation and I haven't had that in 10 months, you know? It's not even the thanks, it's more just the talking, like we're a real person.

"That meant something to me."

Staff writers Paul Walsh and Masako Hirsch contributed to this report. mckinney@startribune.com • 612-673-7329 loakes@startribune.com • 612-673-1751