After weeks of preparing for major spring floods, St. Paul officials are now warning of water levels unseen in more than four decades that could force the evacuations of 2,200 people.
Experts are predicting an uncomfortable 50 percent chance that the Mississippi River could swell past its record of 26.4 feet set in 1964, and the city is stepping up its preparation efforts.
City officials sent letters to residents in the Lowertown area of downtown and the Upper Landing development near downtown, urging them to find temporary alternate places to stay and to store their pets and vehicles, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported Wednesday.
Flooding also could close the area's utility, storm-water and sewer services, said Richard Carlbom, spokesman for Mayor Chris Coleman.
"While we expect these residences to remain dry, people may have to temporarily relocate ... if the floods cut off essential services," Carlbom said.
More than two dozen businesses along the river that store hazardous materials also have been notified.
"There is time for these folks to plan," said Ricardo Cervantes, director of the Department of Safety and Inspections.
There's a 70 percent chance that by the end of April, the river - which normally flows at 4.3 feet - would reach at least 23.8 feet, the level it hit in 2001 when flooding submerged riverfront parks, blocked roads and closed the St. Paul Downtown Airport.
The city had been preparing for weeks for flooding on par with that of 2001, when levels hit the third highest on record in St. Paul. Now they're preparing in case the river shatters the 46-year-old record.
"I am in the 'bad day' business," said Richard Larkin, director of the city's Department of Emergency Management.
"I am not going to tell you we're ready for anything," he said. "(But) we're very serious about this ... and we have been focused on this since the fall."
The river's normal level in the city, 4.3 feet, is an elevation above an established benchmark, not the depth of the river. The river was at 4.41 feet Wednesday.
“I am in the 'bad day' business.”Richard Larkin, St. Paul emergency management
The National Weather Service predicts a 95 percent chance of a major flood St. Paul, which means the river exceeding 17 feet.
At 17.5 feet, waters begin to submerge Harriet Island Park across the river from downtown. At 18 feet, two major roads along the downtown riverfront probably would become impassable. At some point above that, the city likely would begin shutting off utilities and sewer services to high-risk areas and ordering residents to relocate until the floods subside.
The 17 miles of Mississippi River in St. Paul are lined with parks, "essentially engineered with the idea that they will flood at some point," said Parks and Recreation Director Michael Hahm.
Buildings near the river are built with resistant materials.
A 33-foot floodwall protects the West Side neighborhood, opposite downtown, well above the "flood of record" mark of 1965.
Coleman declared a state of local emergency on Monday, an administrative formality that allows the city to begin tracking flood-related planning expenses with the expectation of being able to recoup some of those dollars from state and federal sources. The Ramsey County Board made a similar declaration Tuesday.
Work started Monday on erecting a temporary floodwall at the St. Paul Downtown Airport, which is expected to remain open. The floodwall was first erected in 2009, and was put up twice in 2010.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press
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