Pine County readied to battle an inferno after thousands of trees blew down last summer. Instead, it got epic flooding.
For months, Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole expected Mother Nature's worst.
Ever since 100 mile-per-hour winds roared across the county last summer, destroying thousands of trees and a good chunk of St. Croix State Park, county officials have braced for a fire of "biblical proportions," Cole said.
But they never figured on a flood.
"Flash flooding is not something we have here," Cole said on Tuesday about the historic June rainfall that washed out roads and flooded homes and businesses throughout northeastern Minnesota.
"We have our seasonal overland flooding that comes and goes here every year," he said. "But a flash flood -- people were just out and out unprepared for it. "The saving grace is no one got killed. Stuff can be fixed. Stuff can be replaced."
FEMA officials will arrive in Pine County and several neighboring counties Wednesday to assess damage to homes and businesses caused by the unrelenting rain that battered the area on June 19-20. At the same time, Gov. Mark Dayton will meet with legislative leaders to discuss holding a special session to address flood relief.
"When you consider all the different areas impacted, we're fairly confident that FEMA will make the declaration for individual assistance in the state of Minnesota," Duluth Mayor Don Ness said Tuesday.
Said Duluth Fire Chief John Strongitharm, "When they see the scope of the storm, it would be difficult to think they would not be providing individual assistance. It's had a major impact not only on the public infrastructure, but on people's lives and homes."
In Duluth, 10 inches of rain created the worst flash flooding in more than a century and hundreds of people were forced from homes by rising water. Roads buckled and washed out, sewers overflowed. Damage to public infrastructure has been estimated at $55 million.
"Any place there was a creek or culvert was destroyed," Strongitharm said.
He added that close to 800 residents have reported slight to severe water damage in their homes.
In nearby Carlton County, which sustained more than $100 million in damage to roads, bridges, sewers and private property, 64 homes were destroyed and more than 800 damaged.
In Moose Lake, damage to public roads, utilities, a city-owned campground and a local indoor ice arena was estimated at $15 million. Mark Vahlsing, Moose Lake's administrator, said about 140 homes -- roughly one quarter of the housing stock -- took on water.
By comparison, the floods caused nearly $7 million in damages to roads, bridges and sewers, as well as 130 houses and several businesses, in all of Pine County, a largely rural area about halfway between the Twin Cities and Duluth.
But Cole said the timing couldn't have been worse.
Straight-line winds that topped 100 mph pummeled St. Croix State Park the night of July 1, 2011, dropping towering pines and hardwood trees and leaving campgrounds, roads and hiking trails a tangled mess. Cole said much of the park was closed still this spring. "We're still cleaning that up," he said.
With so many trees decaying on the forest floor, county officials prepared for the possibility of a major fire this summer. "We were talking about it every day, at least 10 times a day," said Denise Baran, of the Pine County Emergency Management team.
When the rains, Cole said, few were prepared. He said only a few in the community had flood insurance.
"We're at the point literally of 'What's next?'" Cole said. "We are tapped out of people and resources. We've had two disasters in one year. This is an incredible strain on everyone."
Richard Meryhew 612-673-4425