A blue sedan sitting deep in a sinkhole where a street used to be. A terrified Lake Superior Zoo seal splashing down a dark road. The planet’s largest body of fresh water stained muddy brown at its western tip. Those now-iconic images came easily to Minnesota minds this week as Duluth marked the anniversary of its record-shattering 2012 flood.

What has ensued in Duluth is less visually vivid, but in some ways more impressive. Repairs have been either completed or are underway on all of the six miles of flood-damaged streets, roads and alleys. Of 27 bridges needing major repairs, six have been completed or soon will be; most of the remainder are due for bids later this year. Ninety percent of 84 failed culverts have been either repaired or replaced.

Those are some of the concrete consequences of Minnesota’s response to upward of 10 inches of rainfall in Duluth and its environs last June 19-21.

Minnesotans did two things that made a major positive difference in Duluth through the sodden summer of 2012 and the winter that lasted until half past spring in 2013. They assented to Gov. Mark Dayton’s call for a special session last Aug. 24 to approve a $167.5 million relief package for the affected region. And they kept coming to Duluth, and spending money while they were there.

If those things had not happened, Duluth officials say, the flood of 2012 would likely be increasingly seen as a permanent pinch on the region’s economic future. Instead, no one in Duluth is talking about a lasting setback.

Instead, Mayor Don Ness told reporters Wednesday that the city is nearing the halfway point of what he considers a two- to three-year process toward full recovery. He urged Duluthians to maintain the resilience they’ve shown to date (see adjacent box).

His message to the rest of Minnesota? “Tremendous gratitude,” Ness said. “We’ve seen the very best in public service and bipartisan cooperation” at the Legislature, noting that a Republican-controlled Legislature and DFL governor came through for the city. “It’s good to see that that’s still possible.”

Without timely assurance of state aid, the 2012 summer construction season would have been less fruitful and design work on this year’s projects would have been delayed, said state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. If flood relief had waited for the Legislature’s regular session this year, “we’d just now be getting going” after enduring a long, hard winter of disruption, Reinert said.

That in turn could have led to loss in population and businesses, something Ness said has been minimal despite damage to nearly 2,000 homes in the region. The Federal Emergency Management Agency denial of the state’s request for aid to owners of damaged homes and businesses last July 25 made the state’s affirmative response a month later all the more important. “The state came in with a very powerful message about assisting our residents, at a time when they were confused and frightened about their ability to overcome the damage,” the mayor said.

Just as heartening in Duluth were last year’s tourism statistics. The city’s hospitality industry saw revenues up 5 percent in 2012 over 2011, despite a flood-related dip during the last two weeks in June. That kept proceeds from the city’s sales tax up when those funds were needed to jump-start repairs that will eventually qualify for federal reimbursement.

City officials conclude that Minnesotans heeded their consistent refrain in the days after the flood: “Duluth is open for business. Please come.” Anecdotes about tourists who said they came because of that message circulated widely in the city last year, Ness said.

Challenges remain. A big one sits at hard-hit Lake Superior Zoo. It’s back in operation, and graciously offered free admission Thursday in thanks for the community’s support. But its premier attraction, Berlin the polar bear, is on an extended “maternity leave” in Kansas City as the future of her home in Duluth is debated. Should the zoo continue to sit perilously close to a flood-prone stream?

When is simply repairing damage not good enough? Do forecasts of a stormier climate in this century, and the loss of wetlands to development, augur for upgrading infrastructure built in the 19th and 20th centuries? And what about “infrastructure” that isn’t roads, bridges and culverts, but formerly wooded hillsides, pristine streams and playable ball fields? Who’s responsible for restoring them?

Those are some of the questions that preoccupy Duluth’s leaders one year after the flood. It still dominates city agendas. But because of Minnesotans’ response in 2012, Duluth’s leaders can begin this year to ponder one more question: What will be next for Duluth, when flood repair is no longer Job One? They have fresh assurance that their fellow Minnesotans care about their answer.


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