NEW ULM, MINN. - Residents of New Ulm breathed a little easier Sunday as crews repaired a gas line broken by floodwaters and the Minnesota River reached one of the first predicted flood crests in the state without any severe effects.
More than two dozen homes lost their natural gas service Saturday evening after the flooding Cottonwood River, which flows into the Minnesota at New Ulm, apparently broke the gas line. There were no fires or explosions, and the local utility quickly shut off the flow of gas after people in the area reported smelling gas and even seeing bubbles in the river.
Workers ventured into the floodwaters in a boat to string a temporary gas line through the trees in a wooded bottomland area.
"I have a great respect for the river. I wouldn't have done what they were doing," said Chuck Wieland, who watched the work from his home overlooking the river.
Jill Oliveira, spokeswoman for the state's emergency operations center, said Sunday that the temporary gas line was being monitored daily and would be replaced with another underground line as soon as floodwaters recede.
The Minnesota River crested Sunday at New Ulm and is expected to remain at crest level for several days, but a temporary berm installed by the city in recent days was offering about 6 extra feet of protection.
The Minnesota River crest is expected to roll through Mankato early Monday, Jordan Tuesday and on into the metro area, reaching Shakopee Tuesday and Savage Thursday. In St. Paul, where the Minnesota joins the Mississippi, the crest is predicted for Thursday evening, about an inch higher than had been predicted last week. That would be almost a foot higher than its spring crest last year. It would also be the eighth-highest and 7 feet below the 1965 record.
But state and National Weather Service officials are warning that rivers could see second crests, because the current cold weather is continuing to slow the thaw and lock up water in recent snow and ice.
At St. Paul, for example, the river is expected to drop after Thursday's crest almost 2 feet by Sunday, but there's a 60 percent chance it could rise back above its current level sometime in the coming weeks, according to the North Central River Forecast Center.
At Stillwater, the St. Croix River is predicted to crest Thursday at about the level that would prompt the closing of the Stillwater lift bridge. But after dropping, it is all but certain to rise even higher. Crest predictions are based on river flows and short-term weather predictions, while longer-term river outlooks are based on water content of snow and ice in a river's watershed, soil moisture and long-term climatic history for the period.
At Fargo, a slight, early rise in the Red River was expected to peak Monday, nearly 23 feet below the record height reached in 2009. But the river has a 40 percent chance of meeting or exceeding that record level this spring.
In Montevideo, upstream on the Minnesota from New Ulm, Mayor Debra Lee Fader said the city was "doing fine" containing a crest predicted to arrive late Monday. But there's concern that an ice jam at Lac qui Parle, upstream, could release a surge of water if it breaks loose or melts fast.
Wieland, 56, who grew up in the New Ulm home where he now lives, is not easily fazed by the fast-moving Cottonwood River, even though it crept up to his garden 40 feet from his house and underground water pressed into his basement. Last week, city officials offered to install a clay berm around his house, but he declined.
"I wasn't worried," he said. "My wife was, but I kept saying, 'We'll be OK.'" But he accepted 1,000 sandbags and a pile of sand outside his house "just in case."
The river has now seen three of its 10 highest crests in the past 12 months. Last fall, the river reached 19.3 feet; last week, it reached 17.1 feet, and last spring it reached 15.6 feet, its 10th highest crest.
Down the Minnesota River in St. Peter, residents gathered near the Broadway Avenue bridge, which had been closed, to watch the flood. One noted it was only the fourth time the bridge has been closed since 1971.
In Hennepin County, officials closed County Hwy. 50 along the Crow River in Rockford and County Hwy. 92 in Minnetrista Sunday. Other closures may follow.