Flood troubles across Minnesota follow mid-June deluge

  • Article by: CURT BROWN and ABBY SIMONS , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 21, 2014 - 3:01 PM

Governor hints at special session of Legislature to allocate money for relief.

The rain stopped, but the scrambling only intensified Friday after a historic deluge that flood watchers warn will keep Minnesota rivers swollen for a week or more.

Gov. Mark Dayton hinted that he might need to call a special legislative session to allocate flood-relief dollars to nearly three dozen counties under a disaster declaration. Hospital officials hustled to move oxygen tanks away from a massive mudslide gash along the Mississippi River’s west bank in Minneapolis. Taste of Minnesota promoters began searching for a new home for the July 4th weekend festival because St. Paul’s Harriet Island will be too dangerous to access.

More National Guard troops were dispatched to levees stretching from the Rainy River near the Canadian border to Henderson 300 miles south along the Minnesota River. And the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it plans to pull all its gates from locks between Hastings and Guttenberg, Iowa, allowing the mighty Mississippi to flow naturally and ease flooding risks upstream.

“All that rain has to go somewhere and there are still a ton of smaller streams that haven’t crested feeding the main stem rivers,” said Craig Schmidt, hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Chanhassen. “Some fields are slowly drying out and smaller streams to the west are beginning to crest, but the Mississippi, Minnesota and Crow Wing rivers will continue to rise for a week at least.”

In St. Paul, for example, temporary flood walls were being deployed around the small airport on the city’s West Side because the Mississippi will likely climb seven more feet by the end of next week.

With nearly 11 inches of rain falling this month, it’s been the rainiest June since 1874 — and there are still 10 days to go. Since Jan. 1, a record-smashing 25.2 inches of precipitation have been recorded at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — eclipsing the January-through-June mark of 21 inches set in 2001.

Hospital ‘on bedrock’

Near the University of Minnesota Medical Center’s West Bank campus, a mudslide took a big chomp out of the Mississippi’s steep bluff Thursday night.

“But we never had any danger or threat to our patients,” said Carolyn Wilson, the chief operating officer of Fairview Health Systems.

She said a team of geologists and engineers assessed the area and assured hospital and Minneapolis officials the area is safe.

“Our facilities are on bedrock,” she said.

Patient rooms are set back far from the bluff edge and only administrative offices and a service road sit near the slide area. Fire department officials said hospital oxygen tanks nearby were undamaged, but authorities released a plume that looked like smoke Friday in order to move the tanks.

“It looked pretty scary, but it was a controlled release of liquid oxygen,” Wilson said.

At another Twin Cities-area hospital, Park Nicollet Methodist Hospital in St. Louis Park, ambulance access was reopened Friday morning after the nearby rain-choked Minnehaha Creek prompted concern.

‘A lot of hardship’

State lawmakers created a $3 million contingency fund this year to match federal funding for disasters, but Dayton fears it may not go far enough, so he might have to call a special legislative session.

“Given the extent of the damage I’ve seen so far, there’s a very good possibility we could exhaust that fund,” said Dayton, who joined U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, state Emergency Management Director Kris Eide and Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson on a visit with local leaders in Edgerton, Luverne and Montevideo on Friday in southwestern Minnesota.

Dayton noted the irony of surveying flood damage in an area he originally was scheduled to visit in support of a project to bring water from the Missouri River to the parched land.

“Now we’re going down to look at floodwaters as high as seven feet,” he said, calling it “a very tragic situation — almost unprecedented — [with] a lot of hardship.”

Klobuchar said she believes the damage is close to reaching the threshold for declaring a federal emergency — which is about twice the state threshold. In Rock County in the state’s southwestern corner, she said, 40 percent of farmland is under water. She said federal help is likely, just as it came to Duluth in 2012 and during past tornado damage.

“We have to access all the help we can get,” she said.

Eide said the process of obtaining a federal disaster declaration is threefold: Local government units must initially assess the damage and document the cost. Then counties and the state join the process — only after floodwaters recede.

“It’s frustrating for people who have been out of their homes awhile and it looks like nothing is being done, but we have to wait until we can actually see the damage,” Eide said. The state will request a FEMA damage assessment within the next week. Everything should be wrapped up within the next three weeks, she said.

“With our new state [contingency] fund we can get cash back into the communities a lot faster than we could in prior years,” she said. “We are really quite a few months ahead this year than we would have been if this happened last year.”

If the federal threshold is met, the government will recoup 75 percent of damage to public infrastructure such as water treatment plants, roads and bridges.

Despite the adversity, Franken said it also brings out the best in the state.

“What you see every time you go to these things is Minnesotans helping other Minnesotans,” he said.

Frederickson said there’s a slim chance farmers could replant some crops, but “that window’s closing fast.

“Right now there’s probably 80-85 percent of farmers that do have a federal crop insurance that will cover them, but it never makes them whole in this case.”

Dayton has declared a state of emergency in 35 counties. He also directed the state’s National Guard to send 100 soldiers to fight flooding on the Rainy River and Rainy Lake in northern Minnesota’s Koochiching County. Another 20 National Guard members were dispatched Friday to help sandbagging operations in Henderson along the Minnesota River.

Taste of Minnesota Festival owner Linda Maddox, widow of Taste founder Ron Maddox, said St. Paul officials told her the event needs to move off Harriet Island to higher ground.

“The festival is ready to go. It’s portable to an extent,” she said.

But there isn’t a whole lot of time to find an alternative site. Maddox said she is hoping to line up something no later than Monday.

Several highways reopened Friday and Department of Natural Resources officials noted that most of the 75 state parks and 25 state trails will be open this weekend. Only two state parks — Blue Mounds in Luverne and Franz Jevne on the Canadian border — are closed, while Fort Ridgely State Park in Fairfax and Upper Sioux Agency State Park in Granite Falls have closed campgrounds but remain open for day use.

“With some sunshine in the forecast, we hope everyone who has been cooped up indoors this week will take advantage of the nice weather and get out,” said Peter Hark, operations manager for the DNR’s Parks and Trails Division.

 

Staff writers Bill McAuliffe, James Walsh, Doug Smith and Kelly Smith contributed to this report.

curt.brown@startribune.com • 612-673-4767

abby.simons@startribune.com • 651-925-5043

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