Fall flooding: Fishy and bizarre mark flood aftermath

Wabasha County deals with damage, while Northfield faces a carpet of carp. In St. Paul, they get ready for the worst.

With St. Paul closing roads under a local state of emergency, a list of damage piling up across the state and 20-pound carp swimming on the sidewalks of Northfield, the impact of last week's torrential rains across southern Minnesota is running on like a bad dream.

"Pretty bizarre," is how North Central River Forecast Center hydrologist Scott Dummer described an autumn flood that is touching some high water marks previously reached only in spring. "To get this amount of rainfall this time of year is extraordinary."

Gov. Tim Pawlenty will revisit Zumbro Falls and Owatonna on Wednesday to get updates from local officials on early flood recovery efforts. Across largely rural Wabasha County, which includes Zumbro Falls, more than 150 homes have been affected by flooding. Residents were allowed to begin cleaning Tuesday, but dozens of homes are likely to be declared total losses. Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are expected to visit 22 counties Wednesday to begin calculating damage to public property, after collecting information from residents and business owners in nine counties Tuesday. Pawlenty last week declared 34 counties disaster areas, and the damage to public property is expected to far exceed the $6.4 million that would trigger federal aid.

Ten school districts have already reported a total of $800,000 in damages, according to Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. That figure includes $500,000 from Pine Island alone.

The Hwy. 41 and Hwy. 101 bridges across the Minnesota River are expected to remain closed indefinitely. Interstate 35W has remained open, though two northbound lanes were scheduled to be closed between Cliff Road and Black Dog Road in Burnsville on Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. for workers to build a temporary dike along the shoulder. All three lanes are expected to be reopened for the morning rush hours. It's the first time such a dike has been built since 2001.

Todd Fairbanks, a dispatcher at the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Traffic Management Center, said the afternoon rush hour Tuesday appeared nearly routine.

"I think people are getting the word," he said.

In Northfield, two St. Olaf biology professors finished the unusual two-day challenge of removing about 100 carp and bigmouth buffalo fish from some walled-in sidewalks along the Cannon River, where they'd sought refuge from floodwaters last weekend. The fish were trapped when the river dropped.

The city had asked them to remove the fish, and the two professors responded as unpaid volunteers.

"They didn't want a bunch of big dead fish rotting on the sidewalks," said Pat Ceas, a St. Olaf ichthyologist.

Under state Department of Natural Resources rules, Ceas and Prof. Stephanie Schmidt, along with city workers and students, were prohibited from returning the carp, a nonnative species, to the river. (Carp caught on hook and line may be put back.)

Monday's catch was taken to a landfill, but Tuesday's carp were made available to anybody who might have wanted to use them in compost. Also, state health and DNR officials indicated the fish shouldn’t be eaten since they’d been swimming in contaminated floodwaters. In any case, there were no takers. Most of Tuesday's haul, Ceas said, were bighead buffalo, a native species that can be put back in the river.

The sight of so many large fish in a small pool was "impressive," Ceas added.

"It's actually quite nice knowing that many bigmouth buffalo are in the Cannon River," he said.

The DNR closed Fort Snelling State Park in the metro, as well as numerous trails and campgrounds in parks across the southern part of the state.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's emergency declaration allows the city to pursue federal and local aid in the case of major flooding.

The river is expected to crest in St. Paul at 18.5 feet beginning Saturday, a few inches above the height it reached in March. It will be the eighth-highest crest on record, but the only one among the top 25 to occur after July.

"That shows you how unique an event this is," Dummer said.

As of noon Tuesday, the river was at 11.3 feet, but it will rise quickly in coming days as flood runoff from the Minnesota River joins the Mississippi west of downtown. St. Paul's record crest was 26 feet in 1965.

Compared with the duration of spring flooding, the current situation indicates water will rise and fall quickly, said Rick Larkin, St. Paul's emergency management director.

Officials closed Shepard Road, from Eagle Parkway to Sibley Street, and Warner Road, from Sibley to Hwy. 61, on Tuesday morning. Sibley and Jackson Streets from Kellogg Boulevard to Shepard also are closed. Kellogg between Wall and Broadway is down to one lane of traffic in each direction.

Harriet Island will likely shut down to the public in coming days, as well, Larkin said.

It cost St. Paul about $1.4 million to fight the March flood, Larkin said.

Upstream in Henderson, the Minnesota River reached its highest level ever recorded Monday.

That's about 2 inches higher than it reached in the historic spring floods of 1965. But a permanent levee now protects the city, and residents still have sewer service and electricity. Volunteers have been sandbagging to protect levee closures, as well.

"In town, things are quiet," Sibley County Emergency Management director Tom Phillips said. "We're lucky."

Staff writer Norm Draper also contributed to this report. mcaul@startribune.com • 612-673-7646 chavens@startribune.com • 612-673-4148

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    Tuesday September 28, 2010

    Statewide road closures: Call 511 or go to www.511mn.org

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