Volunteers wearing high-visibility vests hoisted bag after bag of sand onto pallets in downtown Stillwater Monday morning, the first day of a weeklong effort to build a town-saving berm ahead of what could be a historic crest of the St. Croix River.
Triggered by warnings from the National Weather Service, which for weeks has forecast a high probability of flooding after one of the snowiest winters on record, the two dozen volunteers worked through a sunny but chilly morning in a riverside parking lot closed last week in preparation for the flood fight.
"You have to pace yourself," said Leesa Levy, a new Stillwater resident who said she wanted to help out.
"It's nice to be able to give back to the city," said Doug Menikheim, who lives on Stillwater's South Hill. "It's a nice place to live."
Stillwater Public Works Director Shawn Sanders said it's too soon to know what the berm will cost the city, or exactly when or how high the river will crest. Many years the St. Croix hit its peak in the second week of April, he said, but the cooler temperatures of the past few weeks could mean it crests late.
The city's worst-ever flood was in 1965, when the St. Croix reached 694.07 feet above sea level. That was an exceptionally high water mark for Stillwater, where the Weather Service classifies anything above 689 feet as "major flooding."
The Weather Service issued a flood outlook last week that put the chance for major flooding in Stillwater at 81%. The same forecast said Red Wing faces a 69% chance of major flooding, with St. Paul lower at 47%.
It appears that rainfall and temperature patterns for this week could promote slow melting that would ease the flood threat, according to meteorologist Craig Schmidt. The severity of any flooding will depend on what happens with rain and temperatures in April, he wrote in the latest flood forecast.
The city has already stacked 2 ½-foot-tall jersey barriers along the riverfront, the first step in building the berm. City crews on Monday started dumping sand over the barriers, using heavy equipment to spread a tall pile on Nelson Street near the riverfront Dock Café.
The berm will be covered by a tarp, and the sandbags volunteers fill this week will go on last, adding some height to the berm and acting as anchors to hold down the tarps. Sanders said the city berm will reach about 692 feet.
The city doesn't need more volunteers at this point, said Cathleen Hess, a spokesperson for Community Thread, a Stillwater nonprofit that helps the city recruit volunteers for the anti-flood effort.
Some 75 volunteers were expected Monday, including folks from Stillwater but also three women from the Mahtomedi Fire Department, a family from Lake Elmo and a group of friends who graduated from Stillwater High School in 1974.
"They step up and show up and they work really hard," Hess said. The organization helped the city with flood preparations in 2019, when volunteers filled 28,000 bags. Hess said they expect to fill about the same number this week.
Levy said she brought some sandbagging experience with her to Stillwater when she and her husband moved here last July: They used to live in Valley City, N.D., where locals would sometimes sandbag to keep the Sheyenne River from spilling into the city.
"You lift with your thighs and keep everything low to the ground," said Levy, 64.
"You go as long as you want," said Menikheim, who turns 87 this summer.
"Yeah, there's no competition," Levy said, smiling. "Yet."