Legislators tour Duluth, prepare for aid session

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 28, 2012 - 6:47 AM

'It was pretty devastating:' Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem

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As a part of a legislative delegation Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, and Minority Leader Thomas Bakk survey the flood damage on Vermillion Street in Thomson, Minn. Wednesday June 27, 2011.

Photo: Clint Austin, Duluth News-Tribune via AP

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Minnesota legislators took a sobering tour of flood-ravaged Duluth on Wednesday, getting a firsthand look at the damage that will likely prompt the governor to call them back for a special session.

"You could tell the power of the raging water," said Senate Majority Leader Dave Senjem, who surveyed the area by helicopter, getting an aerial view of the washed-out roads, mudslides and flood-damaged neighborhoods. "It was pretty devastating."

Senjem, R-Rochester, said he expects Gov. Mark Dayton to recall the Legislature to deal with flood relief, "but that's going to be the governor's call."

But Dayton, who visited the region on Tuesday and probably will return on Friday, can't make that call until all of the damage is tallied and the state can officially request a presidential disaster declaration. That request could be made as early as Friday.

Teams from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are scheduled to arrive in Duluth and surrounding communities on Thursday to conduct a preliminary assessment. Local officials have estimated that damage from the torrential rains and floods could top $100 million to public infrastructure. They have barely started to tally the damage to private businesses and homes.

'Duluth is open for business'

But even as they appeal for disaster relief, Duluth officials are scrambling to prevent an even bigger catastrophe -- the possibility that flood coverage in the media might prompt visitors to steer clear of a region that relies on summer tourism.

"Duluth is open for business," said city spokeswoman Pakou Ly. Damaged roads are already being repaired, she said, and popular destinations like the downtown, Canal Park, Bayfront Festival Park and the North Shore are ready and waiting.

Off the beaten tourist track, however, residents are still sleeping in Red Cross shelters, and streets full of dumpsters are slowly being filled with waterlogged debris from devastated homes. The federal disaster declaration, if it comes, will deal only with public infrastructure.

In the surrounding communities, the picture is even worse.

Legislators visited the town of Thomson, population 159, which sits next to the Thomson dam and reservoir and caught the full fury of the raging St. Louis River. Homes flooded, roads crumbled and the city's sidewalks were so waterlogged that they sank six inches, Ly said.

"The city was devastated," Ly said. "Duluth has received a lot of public attention; we wanted our legislators to have the opportunity to see that other [communities] are suffering as well."

After his own tour of the flooded region, Dayton told the local public radio station that he is waiting for a federal disaster declaration before he makes a final decision about calling a special legislative session. Federal disaster aid comes with the expectation that states will shoulder part of the cost -- the federal government usually provides 75 percent of the aid, while state or local governments cover the rest.

"It's just devastating, and it's just hard to see the pain in people's faces and people who've lost much, if not all, of what they have worked to build up, wondering what's going to happen and what help is available," Dayton said during his radio interview.

"We don't have those answers yet. But we're here and promise that we're going to keep coming back and be involved until we can get a lot of this resolved."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Jennifer Brooks • 651-925-5049

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