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Thousands cleaning up today after record rains in Minn., Wis.

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Manhole flooded
Water shoots up from a manhole cover on Eighth Avenue in Ellendale, Minn. on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010.
Tim Engstrom/Albert Lea Tribune

Thousands of people across southern Minnesota are cleaning up after record rains this week -- and the water is still rising in parts of the state.

In a sign of just how serious the situation had become, officials closed Interstate 35 south of Owatonna, one of the state's principal transportation arteries. The Minnesota Department of Transportation reopened the stretch of interstate at 2 p.m. Friday.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has also activated the National Guard, and soldiers were manning posts in Owatonna before dawn this morning. He planned to tour tiny Truman, south of Mankato, and then travel to Pine Island and Owatonna in the southeastern corner of the state Friday afternoon.

Bruce Gordon, Pawlenty's spokesman, said officials may consider a request for federal disaster assistance, much like the state sought in the wake of the state's worst tornado outbreak on July 17.

Aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency typically includes payments for local governments to restore damaged public facilities and infrastructure. The Small Business Administration often includes low-interest loans as part of disaster aid as well.

Filling sandbags
Men, women, boys and girls help fill sandbags Thursday afternoon near the New Richland Care Center as the residents battled rising waters in many places near a creek that flows through the city.
Michelle Haacke/Albert Lea Tribune

Department of Public Safety spokesman Doug Neville said officials won't know the extent of the damage until the floodwaters recede. 

"This isn't over yet. This is going to be going on for several days as the rivers continue to rise," Neville said. "As we get those numbers, we'll see if it reaches some of the criteria to approach FEMA about to request some kind of declaration."

It's unclear how many property owners may have had flood insurance, because the rain fell outside the spring flood season and in places that haven't seen flooding before.

This week's rains, while not deadly like those storms, covered a much larger part of the region, swelling waters from a flooded-out trailer park in Brookings, S.D., to Black River Falls, Wis., where officials were evacuating people from low-lying apartments overnight. 

Across southern Minnesota, state officials say as many as 400 homes have had their utilities shut off to protect them from natural gas and electrical hazards posed by the floodwaters.

The National Weather Service also said the total precipitation was in the top five rainfalls ever recorded in Amboy, Winnebago, Waseca, Faribault, Blue Earth and Zumbrota.

Bill Boesch, a retired insurance agent in Amboy, told MPR his rain gauge got a foot of rain -- even more than the official 10.5 inches reported by the National Weather Service there.

The weather service's North Central River Forecast Center is predicting that water will continue to pour through Minnesota for as much as a week. The Minnesota River at Jordan is expected to crest near major flood stage on Tuesday. It's expected to remain above flood stage into October.

The Cottonwood River at New Ulm is expected to rise into major flood stage over the weekend and the Zumbro River at Zumbro Falls may top the 1951 flood record by nearly 5 feet Friday or Saturday.

In Northfield on Friday, high school students whose classes were canceled for the day were helping place sandbags around businesses threatened by the rising Cannon River.

Northfield officials said they expected the river to crest in about 10 hours. Water was already washing up on the walkway along the river in downtown Northfield, and the river's current was swift.

Two bridges in Northfield have been closed.  

National Weather Service hyrdologist Steve Buan said the storm is likely the remnant of Hurricane Karl that hit Mexico's Yucatan peninsula in mid-September.

"That moisture plume then was able to come up all the way up through 45 degrees north," Buan said, adding that it was a little unusual. He said the rain eventually stretched from Nebraska through Ontario by the time the storm petered out.

(MPR reporter Rupa Shenoy contributed to this report.)