Duluth assesses its hurt; 'We feel overwhelmed'

As Duluth took stock and cleaned up, places like Moose Lake and Willow River to the south faced sudden onslaught.

DULUTH - As residents filled dumpsters with ruined possessions Thursday and state officials surveyed gaping sinkholes and an estimated $100 million in damage from historic flooding, water suddenly rose farther south, forcing more evacuations.

In Moose Lake, about 40 miles south of Duluth, city officials declared a state of emergency as water encroached and surrounded the town. Well into the evening, residents desperately sandbagged trying to hold back rising water. Some won. Some didn't.

"It's gone," said Jayson Wright, of his finished basement, which was overwhelmed by the waters of the Moose Horn River. "I don't know what to do."

Some 30,000 sandbags had been stacked by late afternoon. Still, about 30 percent of the city's homes had taken on water and much of the town was inaccessible as floodwaters cut off access from nearly every direction. The water overwhelmed the main pump at the city's sanitary sewer pump station, causing it to fail.

"We feel overwhelmed," said City Administrator Mark Vahlsing.

As Moose Lake battled, residents of Willow River, about 17 miles south, were advised to leave their homes.

Torrential rains of up to 10 inches in some parts of Duluth and the region overnight Tuesday fueled raging runoff that caused the worst flooding in more than a century.

Duluth authorities reiterated that residents should stay away from streams, culverts and standing water.

"Our biggest concern is the attractive nuisance," said Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay, noting that a mother and son were lucky to make it out of an east Duluth creek alive after being swept in. Sheriff's deputies rescued a man whose panel truck was swept off a highway Thursday near Sturgeon Lake.

The region has an opportunity to dry out over the next couple of days, according to National Weather Service forecasts.

Governor gets firsthand look

Thursday morning, Gov. Mark Dayton joined Duluth Mayor Don Ness on a tour of sinkholes and buckled streets. Ness estimated damage to Duluth's public infrastructure at $50 million to $80 million, not counting damage to private property.

"Regionwide, I'm sure we're looking at over $100 million in damage," he said.

Dayton and other officials used the visit to get a preliminary sense of what state and federal resources might be needed. U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack, are expected to tour the area Friday.

"It's terrible devastation, showing the awesome, destructive power of nature," Dayton said while looking at earthquake-like rubble that used to be Vermilion Road. "We'll be part of this rebuilding for as long as it takes."

Dayton issued an executive order Wednesday declaring a state of emergency for the popular tourist region and three other counties hit hard by recent storms. That declaration allows for emergency vehicles to move supplies to the area and the activation of the National Guard, if needed.

Officials are scrambling to come up with damage assessments Dayton can use to request federal disaster assistance from FEMA, a process expected to take several days.

"I have given my home number to the public officials here and told them I want to hear about any glitches they run into in receiving assistance," Dayton said. "We will do everything possible to speed the process and remove obstacles."

Dayton called the damage a "catastrophe," and said he would consider calling a special session of the Legislature to get aid to the region more quickly. He said repairing washed-out roads and highways will be crucial to the tourism industry, taconite mining and paper making.

Keith Nelson, chair of the St. Louis County Board, told Dayton the county -- the state's largest -- has 3,000 square miles and 80 roads affected by flooding and that fixing damage quickly is crucial.

"The summer tourist season is so important to northeastern Minnesota," Nelson said.

Battling the Moose Horn

In Moose Lake, water started rising early Wednesday, pushing up through the city's sewer system, climbing the shores of Moosehead Lake at the edge of town and flooding the elementary school.

Wright sat on his front steps late Thursday and watched as gawkers stopped. Many of his neighbors were flooded, too.

"It was like erupting out of the sewer system downstairs," Wright said. Even with two pumps and a seven-person bucket brigade that worked for six hours, it was impossible to keep up, he said.

As the Red Cross set up a shelter at Holy Angels Church, Vahlsing hoped "the worst had peaked."

With the exception of the city of Carlton, where roads reopened and residents returned home after evacuating Wednesday, miles of roads across the region remained closed and detours were common.

"It is improving," said Beth Petrowske, a Minnesota Department of Transportation spokeswoman. "The list of road closings is a little shorter and we've got a few more detours in place." Very early estimates put highway damage between $20 million and $35 million, she said. The agency will apply for federal aid, she added.

Residents displaced

For Duluthians Brennan Mears and his wife, Amanda Hexum-Mears, Thursday marked the second day of bone-numbing work to clean up the mess normally docile Tischer Creek made when it became a torrent Wednesday.

"When you open your door and hear the steady roar of water, it gets your attention," said Mears. Water was running down their Hunter's Park street like it was a river.

They called 911 and donned life jackets before firefighters helped carry their 5-year-old daughter, Harper, to higher ground. By late Thursday, the couple, with help from neighbors, had filled a 35-yard rented dumpster with belongings ruined by floodwater in their basement and garage.

"We lost the washer, dryer, the water heater and a $1,200 treadmill," he said. "But everyone is safe. That's the important thing."

Staff writer Chris Havens contributed to this report. loakes@startribune.com • 612-673-1751 richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 mckinney@startribune.com • 612-673-7329

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