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In Moose Lake, a stunned, flooded community comes together

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Sandbagging in Moose Lake
Preston Peterson, 5, found playing with his toy more interesting than the sandbagging operation going on around him Thursday afternoon near the Soo Line Depot in Moose Lake, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Flooding spread around northeastern Minnesota Thursday, after record rains earlier this week. Outlying communities southwest of Duluth spent much of the day doing whatever they could do to fend of rapidly rising water.

At one point during the day, the water was rising about an inch every hour in Moose Lake, a community of 2,700 people some 40 miles southwest of Duluth.

Resident Joe Mohelsky says his house is "pretty much underwater,"  after the water rose 4 feet in less than 24 hours, covering most of his lake-side property with murky, debris filled water. About 8 inches surround his 2,500 square foot log house. Sand-bags have helped, but so far there's about an inch of water inside.

Mohelsky says when he purchased the property, the government required that he also buy flood insurance, because it was in a federal flood zone. But Mohelsky appealed it.

"We got a waiver on our flood insurance, which was probably about 12 years ago. We never, ever expected it to be to these levels," he said. "Flood insurance is very expensive. It was actually more than our regular home owners insurance was. So it's a chance you take and we gambled and we lost this time."

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• Photos: Moose Lake fights the flood
• Story: Tourism-dependent region worries
• Story: Duluth turns to FEMA for help
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• Map: Duluth, North Shore flood zone
• Closures: Highways, Duluth streets, state parks

Community members and inmates from the near-by prison boot camp worked side-by side filling sandbags that were deployed to homes, businesses and schools.

"We're trying to cover the vents in the school to keep the elementary classrooms from filling up," said David Waletzko, as he stacked sandbags against the Moose Horn River at the campus. "So far it's just a little bit of leak inside and we're staying ahead of it. But the water's rising fast."

Tim Caroline, superintendent for the Moose Lake School District, says some of the classrooms are flooded with a few inches of water, but for now the sandbags are holding.

Avery Anderson
Avery Anderson moves sandbags around on a trailer while his friend Vern Anderson (right) waits to give him a refreshment Thursday afternoon at a sandbagging operation at the Soo Line Depot in Moose Lake, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"It's been a shock to the whole community. A lot of families have lost their houses and we're just trying to keep water out of here and a lot of families are hurting," he said.

Residents say one part of the river, which is normally 25 feet wide, swelled in just hours to something closer to 200 feet.

The volume of water shut down the city sewage treatment plant. Replacement pumps to move sewage arrived from Duluth Thursday, with larger ones scheduled to come up from the Twin Cities. Public works employees say the water in Moose Lake is still safe to drink.

Both people who live in town, and many with family members and friends there, showed up to help.

For much of the afternoon unusual scenes played out as kayakers and boaters padded through everything from parking lots to city streets -- even an RV park submerged in water.

Flooding also hit nearby Barnum, Thomson and Carlton -- which are closer to Duluth.

Moosehead Lake
Volunteers lay sandbags around a home on the shore of Moosehead Lake Thursday, June 21, 2012, in Moose Lake, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

The reports from those towns suggest they're still experiencing major problems with flooding from the St. Louis River. The towns remain inaccessible by road.

Carlton is one of the gateway communities to Jay Cooke State Park, which officials say will be closed until at least mid-July because of flood damage. Mayor Leola Rodd says she's concerned about the impact the flood will have on small towns like her's that could be hurt by the loss of tourism.

"We do have a lot of people in this community who drive through and do use our businesses, but I don't believe it's going to be enough to maintain that now. It's going to be a difficult time this summer," Rodd said.

Local and state officials say federal funding will be critical to getting the region back together once the flood waters recede.