Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

St. Louis County declares state of emergency amid flooding, city of Cook underwater

A vehicle drives through a flood
A vehicle moves through the flooded intersection of South River Street and Second Avenue Southeast on Thursday in Cook, Minn. Heavy rain on Wednesday flooded parts of northern Minnesota including Cook, which was one of the areas that was hit hard around the Iron Range.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

The St. Louis County Board has declared a local disaster in response to flooding and other damage resulting from recent torrential rain that swept across the region.

As of Thursday morning the county had closed more than 40 roads that had been washed out or flooded. Downtown Cook is under several feet of water and the YMCA’s Camp du Nord outside Ely is reportedly cut off due to a road washout.

An aerial view of downtown Cook underwater
A view of downtown Cook on Wednesday after being inundated with flood waters from the Little Fork River.
Courtesy of Ryan Horner

The disaster declaration enables the county to access state and federal disaster relief funding. County Administrator Kevin Gray said he’s confident the county would meet those thresholds, which for federal assistance is just under $1 million.

Commissioner Keith Nelson told a media briefing that he believed the county sustained at least $50 million in damage to infrastructure.

“We’ve got a railroad track washed up up north where tracks are hanging 15 feet in the air, with a 100-yard gap underneath it,” Nelson said. “That in and of itself is a huge, huge issue.”

One of the hardest hit areas is the town of Cook, where the Little Fork River, which runs along the north edge of town, rushed into downtown Cook.

A person kayaks in a flooded intersection
A kayaker moves through the flooded intersection of South River Street and Second Avenue Southeast in Cook on Thursday.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

Businesses in the town of 500, along with City Hall and the public library, are inundated and closed for the foreseeable future.

“It’s just sheer devastation,” said Ryan Horner, who runs the 85-year old Comet Theater with his wife Sarah. It’s one of the oldest operating theaters in the state.

“The downtown area is under at least three feet of water,” Horner said. “I’ve got sandbags up about two and a half feet high. And it’s over the top of those covering the doors and the sides. The whole street is closed off several blocks, all the main businesses are on that street and they’re all completely submerged in water right now.”

Inside the theater, Horner said there was up to two feet of water in the front of the building. But he said it’s even deeper in the theater itself.

Store flooded inside
Flood waters have made their way inside businesses in Cook on Wednesday including the Comet Theater.
Courtesy of Ryan Horner

“It’s definitely up almost past my chest. So it’s four to five feet deep, actually, at the bottom of the theater itself. And then there’s a basement underneath that’s completely submerged,” Horner said.

Horner said because the business is located in a flood plain, he’s unable to buy flood insurance.

“Everybody in town is kind of in a state of shock right now. Nobody knows what to do. We’re just waiting for the water to recede and get back into our businesses and homes.”

County officials are going door to door to ensure that elderly residents are safe, said St. Louis County Public Works Director Jim Foldesi. The river isn’t expected to crest until Saturday.

“If the rain can stay away that will really benefit all we can do as far as response,” said Foldesi.

Elsewhere, the county is prioritizing washouts that have stranded residents in areas where there is only one way in and one way out. That includes Mud Creek Road, which has cut off access to a resort and cabins on the northern shore of Lake Vermillion.

Billy Muelken owns Glenwood Lodge, about nine and a half miles down the road. He said he recorded 11 inches of rain at the resort.

About a 250 foot long section of the gravel road has completely washed out. That means the only way into his resort right now is by boat.

“We’re stuck in here. We’re not going anywhere with a vehicle,” Muelken said.

His resort is completely booked; all his cabins are full. He’s pulled his guests’ boats out of the water. He said they’re all making the best of the situation — he hasn’t gotten any complaints.

A man kayaks through the street
Cook resident Steve Anderson kayaks through flooding streets on Thursday.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

One person who had to leave to get to work was evacuated, along with her vehicle, on a barge.

Muelken said people have to weigh down their docks to ensure they don’t float away. He said the lake level rose by one foot in 12 hours. He said the massive rainfall caused several beaver dams to blow out, which unleashed a torrent of water across the road and into the lake.

“So that’s what happens, beaver dams north of us break, water goes through the woods in a humongous quantity and tears up our road.” He said the water is pouring across the road “like a massive river.”

A building surrounded by flood waters
The Comet Theater is surrounded by flooding on Wednesday in downtown Cook after days of rain raised levels of the Little Fork River.
Courtesy of Ryan Horner

Still, Muelken said he’s open for business. He said he anticipates the road reopening in the next day or two.

On Burntside Lake outside Ely, flooding has also stranded campers at the YMCA’s Camp du Nord.

Michel Tigan, Vice President of Adventure and Camp Operations at YMCA of the North said it’s been a dramatic time for the 270 campers currently on the property. “About 170 of them are stranded on one side of our property that's been cut off by this breaking of the waterway and then cutting through the property,” she said.

Tigan said staff and volunteers have been able to rebuild trails so everyone get to the dining hall. She hopes the county is able to repair the road leading to camp soon so that stranded campers can leave on Saturday, and in time for the next group of campers scheduled to arrive Sunday.

“Right now our biggest hurdle is that we're working through an exit plan to get families that have been affected,” Tigan said.

The flooding comes at a terrible time for communities heavily dependent on summer tourism. With Grandma’s Marathon scheduled for Duluth this weekend and people starting to flock north for vacations, officials stressed the county is open for business.

“We’re dealing with this disaster, but we’re open for business,” said Nelson. “Don’t change your plans. We want people to continue to come north and visit us because it’s an integral part of our economy.”

Officials pleaded with residents and visitors to not drive through roads that have been closed due to flooding. Commissioner Mike Jugovich said people are ignoring signs and getting stranded.

“Please, it’s a safety issue. Stay out. We’re having cars stall. And the last thing we want is to have someone become a statistic because they didn’t follow the rules and stay out of areas that are blocked off.”

people make sandbags in green and yellow bags
Cook volunteer firefighters, St. Louis County Rescue Squad, and community members make sandbags on Thursday.
Erica Dischino for MPR News

Foldesi said in his 31 years of experience, this disaster ranks as the second most devastating, behind only the record-setting flooding of 2012 — which occurred exactly twelve years ago.

He said the county is focusing on temporary repairs to reopen roads as quickly as possible. It will focus on permanent repairs later. And while he said crews are out of “emergency mode” and in “repair mode,” that could change if significant rain falls again this weekend.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Foldesi said.