Wild weather, wilder water
Rapid snow melt causes flooding
April 21, 2023
Carlton County's emergency management director isn't yet willing to concede the county dodged a bullet with the spring flooding this year.
He's worried about what Mother Nature could bring next.
"I'm always worried about the weather," Marlyn Halvorson said, chuckling. "Snow, cold weather, rain, all those things play into it."
Water levels in the St. Louis River rose dramatically late last week, going from 10 feet in Scanlon at 4 p.m. Thursday to more than 13 feet only 24 hours later, thanks to high temperatures and rapidly melting snow. At the same time, the south channel of the river near USG filled up with chunks of ice all the way to the Sappi railroad bridge. Ice chunks ranging from small to the size of kitchen appliances or even kitchen floors filled the entire waterway for most of Friday before melting away that evening. River water levels ebbed Friday into Saturday, then rose again Saturday into Sunday.
Over the weekend, one could have dropped a fishing line into the river right off the deck of the River Inn Bar & Grill in Scanlon, where the gazebo, fire pit and volleyball courts were part of the flowing river. Owner Aaron Hanson said the building sits on a concrete slab so it was unaffected. So were the patrons, who packed the bar all weekend. The volleyball pits and lawn will need some work though. "Nothing a couple weekends of fun and a tractor can't help," said Hanson, thanking folks for their support.
By Monday, things were headed in the right
Water levels started dropping Sunday evening, after the St. Louis River danced right up to the line of encroachment at Sappi and maxed out at 13.56 feet in Scanlon around 4 p.m. Sunday, according to the National Weather Service.
By 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, the river had dropped to 12.77 feet. The weather service predicted river levels will drop below flood stage (10.5 feet) by Saturday evening.
Downstream at Jay Cooke State Park, the swinging bridge was closed to foot traffic around midday last Saturday, after the river rose to within 2 feet of the bridge deck. Tree trunks and ice chunks occasionally passing below presented a safety hazard to the curious "flood tourists" making their way to the park.
"People have been streaming in yesterday and today," park naturalist Kristine Hiller said Saturday after her own "discombobulating" look into the raging river beneath the bridge. "And of course, it's the spring tradition of the locals, right?"
The river was flowing at 32,860 cubic feet per second Saturday before rain and snow came, Hiller said, and 34,600 feet Friday, according to Minnesota Power figures for the Thomson Dam. By Wednesday that number was down to 28,451 A typical spring peak is around 20,000.
The record high was set in 2012, when levels topped 55,000 cubic feet per second and the swinging bridge was mostly swept away.
With lessons from the 2012 flood still top of mind, officials at the Cloquet Sappi mill made the decision Friday to evacuate the facility due to the high water. Cloquet Area Fire District chief Jesse Buhs said it was not a "rapid emergent evacuation."
"It was more of an orderly dismissal of staff because of the potential for flooding," he said. "They had a plan after 2012, and [the high water] corresponded with maintenance shutdown so they could dismiss a greater number of staff without issues. But it was close. It was good to implement their plan, and test it."
The USG Interiors plant in Cloquet also shut down "out of an abundance of caution," said plant manager Jenna Leger. It reopened on Monday.
"In addition, our teams at the plant took advance precautions to ensure our facilities were well-prepared for the rising river levels," Leger said. "We are proud of the work they did and their success in keeping the plant dry."` `
According to a statement from Sappi, after reaching peak height at midnight Sunday the river was receding and employees were called back to work.
"No water has entered the buildings, and no safety incidents have occurred," said spokesman Peter Steele Monday afternoon. "The mill team expects to begin the startup procedure later today. Employees are returning to work based on the mill's startup requirements."
In Moose Lake - where the Moosehorn Lake is quicker to overflow its banks onto Lakeshore Drive - business owners and city officials acted quickly to keep the Moose Lake Brewing Company dry, building a retaining wall and bringing in pumps to keep the water out of the building.
Barnum mayor Dale Riihiluoma said the city brought in sand and bags for any residents who needed sandbags, but didn't end up needing them for any city structures. The fire chief and firefighters monitored water levels over the weekend, so they were ready. As usual, the river overflowed into the park. But it didn't affect the nearby apartments that had to be evacuated in 2012.
"The park was flooded totally, like a big bowl full of water. But it's kind of designed that way so it doesn't affect the town," Riihiluoma said Wednesday. "And it's within its banks already."
Mitigation efforts since 2012 worked in many cases, said county emergency management director Marlyn Halvorson, and didn't work so well in others.
In western Carlton County, townships had a lot of road surface gravel washed away, exposing, damaging and moving culverts.
Eagle Township had several problem areas, but the most unique washout stranded Jim Huhta at his farm: a culvert lifted right out of the roadbed, resting on top of the dirt like a cigar.
Lakeview Township had a pipe - just repaired on Friday - which washed out again because of rain and then snow. South of Doug Suhonen's home, a culvert went out and parts of the tar road slid into Tamarack Lake. This was on a county road.
Several county roads had water running over roads at culvert crossings. County road 6 west of Automba Townsite had water pouring over the Soo Trail grade and washing out the road. Repairs were made by the weekend but more moisture may cause problems again. This is the fourth time in 12 years that major damage has been done to that stretch of road.
Then and now
Mae Nelson headed to Spafford Park in Cloquet Friday to check out the water levels and compare notes with friends.
She remembered the 1950 flood, when she was Mae Bodin and her family lived on Dunlap Island. Two-thirds of the island flooded then.
"I was 4 or 5 years old then and we were out of the house for a week, I think," Nelson told the Pine Knot, later sharing newspaper clippings from May 8, 1950, showing flooded homes on Dunlap Island where the campground now sits, and another ice jam in the river channel, although it flowed past the Wood Conversion Company plant at that time.
The same newspaper also featured the water raging past the swinging bridge at Jay Cooke, which was left "a mass of twisted steel and splintered floorboards," according to the caption.
Park naturalist Kristine Hiller said the bridge deck was raised 2 ½ feet when it was reconstructed after the 1950 flood. She added that the four giant pillars built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934 survived both the 1950 and 2012 floods, although they were redecorated after some damage in 2012.
While the bulk of the snowpack has melted, northern Minnesota isn't out of flood danger yet. The National Weather Service was predicting more wintry weather: rain and/or freezing rain Wednesday turning into snow Thursday afternoon before tapering off on Friday with highs in the upper 30s.
Be aware, Halvorson said. One of the easiest ways for residents to receive updated advisories, warnings and alerts is to sign up for Everbridge, Carlton County's Emergency Alert System at http://www.co.carlton.mn.us/262/Emergency-Alerts. These alerts can be delivered via texts, calls or email.
"Signing up for the alerts does two things: it gives weather information directly from the National Weather Service, and it updates our database," Halvorson said. "If we need to send out notices to residents in a particular area, we can do that. Good information in, is good information out."
Reporter Dan Reed contributed to this story.