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Lessons learned helped Rainy Lake region survive flooding

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Lessons learned helped Rainy Lake region survive flooding
Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. -- It was a memorable summer for Dick Garbe, and not in a good way.

“We had a winter that wouldn’t quit, we had no spring and we had a summer that didn’t start till August 1st,” he said.


Garbe owns Northernaire Houseboats of Rainy Lake, which was among many businesses and residences affected by the worst flooding in the Rainy River basin since 1950. The flooding that besieged the region along and near the U.S.-Canada border in June was preceded by a longer-than-usual winter and colder-than-usual spring. Ice out on Rainy Lake was May 22, almost three weeks later than normal, Garbe said.

The Rainy River basin, which includes Rainy Lake, Lake Kabetogama and other large lakes, had to handle significant spring snowmelt and then several weeks of heavy rain in May and June. All of that water — snowmelt and rain — had to channel through Rainy Lake before passing through the dam at International Falls and then funneling down the Rainy River.

The scale of anything involving the Rainy River basin is enormous. The watershed is 14,300 square miles, said Rob Ecklund, who chairs the Koochiching County Board. That makes it bigger than some states.

Learning from 2002

The flooding destroyed hundreds of docks, Koochiching County Sheriff Brian Jespersen said. But thanks to Herculean efforts by volunteers and Cloquet-based National Guard troops to fill and stack sandbags, additional property damage was minimal, he said.

Officials know there are lessons to be learned from the difficult summer. Jespersen has set a post-flood briefing with everyone involved for Wednesday. “We’re going to talk about that: lessons learned and what we could have done better,” he said.

But the region benefited this time around from a similar discussion process after flooding in 2002, Ecklund said. They already had 50,000 to 60,000 sandbags on hand, Ecklund said, and they knew which supplier in the Red River Valley to call to immediately get more sandbags headed their way.

Jespersen said that at the height of the flooding, at any given time, between 300 and 500 volunteers were filling sandbags at City Beach near International Falls.

Summer residents from the Fargo-Moorhead and Grand Forks, N.D., areas — accustomed to dealing with floods — showed other volunteers how to properly fill the bags and how to build dikes, Ecklund said.

‘And then the dock went’

National Guard members came just in time to relieve exhausted workers stacking sandbags at Tara’s Wharf in Ranier, said Tara Nelson, who owns the ice cream shop and bed and breakfast.

But 144 concrete blocks and water-filled 350-gallon totes ultimately weren’t enough to save her 62-foot and 15-foot docks. They held, Nelson said, until the last in a series of storms brought 70 mph winds that shifted from east to northwest in less than 45 minutes.

It was night, and Nelson was asleep. But guests in one of her suites watched the totes “tumble one after the other after the other, just like dominoes,” Nelson said. “And then the dock went.”

Losing both docks might have been disastrous for her inn, since guests come to fish or boat recreationally, she said. But most still came, using a nearby Department of Natural Resources boat launch to get on and off Rainy Lake.

The ice cream business did just fine, she said.

She has hired a dock builder and hopes he’ll be able to get hers rebuilt yet this fall, Nelson said.

‘We did survive’

The docks at Moosehorn Resort on Lake Kabetogama held, said Christy Mitchell, who has owned the resort with her husband for eight years. But it required a massive effort.

“We had a total of 30 55-gallon barrels filled with water all over the docks,” she said. “We had rowboats filled with water and sandbags on top of the docks to hold them down.”

Like Tara’s Wharf, Moosehorn Resort had to adapt, using a floating dock tied to a tree on their lawn for a while, Mitchell said.

“But we’re happy to say that we did survive,” Mitchell said. “We’re pretty much back to normal.”

One of the docks was damaged and is usable but “shaky,” she said. It will be repaired next spring.

Leftover sand

“Normal” began to return in July, but it’s a gradual and ongoing process.

The International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board announced that Rainy Lake had returned to normal levels as of Aug. 12. The dam-controlled lake had peaked on July 1 at just over 1,111 feet above sea level, about 3½ feet above its target level for that time of year and the highest level recorded since 1950.

“The water levels are doing good,” Ecklund said. “We’ve got a lot of aftermath we’re dealing with.”

Like many other local residents, he’ll have to clean up debris that washed up on the lake property he owns, Ecklund said.

And then there’s the question of what to do with all of that sand.

“We’re going to be able to use it in different ways, but we’ve got to be careful about how it’s done,” Ecklund said.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency considers used sandbags to be contaminated, he explained. The sand can be used for landscaping purposes if covered with topsoil that is seeded. But the sand can’t be dumped in a lake or to shore up beaches.

‘A tough blow’

Even when water levels started to go down, tourists didn’t necessarily come back.

“If they hear you don’t have a dock or there’s been a flood they maybe don’t quite feel safe about having their boat out there,” said Woody Woods, longtime owner of Woody’s Rainy Lake Resort in Ranier.

“Our tourist community basically makes their living on four months of the year,” Ecklund said. “And they’ve got to hold on through the other eight. So it was a tough blow for them.”

Garbe said what he called “bad press” from Twin Cities media didn’t help, because it made people think the flooding was worse than it was. He was left with only five or six weeks in which to rent out his 16 houseboats, he said. The season runs to Oct. 1 but rentals always decrease sharply in September, he added.

His marina with 42 slips was closed down for a time, and customers were slow to return.

Still, Garbe looks ahead to next year with classic Minnesota stoicism.

“I figure if you made it through this season you can probably make it through anything,” he said.

The bright side of a tough summer was the way the community rallied to meet the challenge, Ecklund said.

“I’m not going to say the flood was good for the community,” he said. “But the volunteer effort was good for the community because it makes you tighter.”

John Lundy
(218) 720-4103