As rain batters IFalls, sandbags guard against high water

Weeks of heavy rain along the U.S border with Canada are pushing water levels in the Rainy River basin to a critical point.

More than 2.5 inches of rain fell on International falls Thursday, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Kevin Kraujalis. That's more than double the daily record for the area, and it comes after an incredibly wet early June.

In the last two weeks the area was drenched with 5.5 inches of rain, 4 inches above average, and all the water is starting to take its toll.

"All the docks are underwater," said Lee Grim, who serves on the International Joint Commission, the agency that regulates water flow on reservoirs along the U.S.-Canada border.

The Rainy, Kabetogoma, Namakan Lakes and others in the Rainy River watershed are swallowing docks and threatening homes, cabins and resorts.

With forecasts of weekend thunderstorms and predictions of another 1.5 inches of rain on Saturday and Sunday, Grim said residents are scrambling for sandbags.

"They have no choice," he said. "This is out of control."

Jennifer Gelo took delivery of her third dump-truck load of sand on Friday and sent her son to town to get more bags. She and her husband Gordon Gelo own Sandy Point, one of many resorts on Kabetogama Lake. Their land isn't much higher than the lake level, so flooding poses a real problem.

"We're sandbagging like crazy," she said.

Kabetogama is operated as a reservoir by the International Joint Commission. Dam operators try to match the natural fluctuations of regular lakes. Early June is a scheduled peak. However, right at this year's peak level, the rain arrived. Grim said all the dams are wide open to release as much water as possible, but can't keep up with the inflow.

Gelo said the water is just 12 feet from the Sandy Point lodge and nearly at the door of their largest cabin. She described a panicky scene, with swarms of newly hatched mosquitoes biting at the sandbag crews. Some of their resort guests are pitching in to help lay walls of sandbags — all under the threat of more rain.

"This is our livelihood," she said. "We're just hoping for the best."