Even as flood damages mount, towns say planning paid off

Prior Lake flooding
Homes are surrounded with sandbags in Prior Lake , Minn., Friday, June 27, 2014, for protection from flood waters by Prior Lake.
Kyndell Harkness/Star Tribune via AP

Federal authorities are still checking June flood damage reports across the state and tallying costs — now estimated at about $48 million to public roads, bridges and other structures — as waters recede.

Whatever the final total, though, officials say it could have been much worse. Communities, they say, are better designed for flooding now than in decades past — homes moved, levees built and redesigned landscapes are helping to reduce flood damage.

More: Flooding could be worse, but these fixes worked

Even as Minnesota dries out, that work continues.

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In Moorhead Wednesday, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack unveiled a $50 million conservation initiative to help reduce flooding in the Red River Valley. In the metro area, there was plenty of sandbagging, sump pumping and road closing, but officials were happy to see years of sometimes contentious flood planning pay off as river defenses bent, at times, but mostly didn't break.

As the Mississippi rose to major flood stage the seven-block Upper Landing development in St. Paul stood 100 feet from the river's edge protected by walls, paths, gullies and a hill. Even if water reached the buildings, they were built on garages designed to take in water.

"I thought, 'Why live next to a river? They're gonna flood,'" Beth Hillemann said last week as she walked her two dogs along the flooded Mississippi River by Upper Landing, her apartment and condo complex below downtown St. Paul. "Here I am, living next to a river and it's been fine with this flooding."

St. Paul also helped with flood protection around the Upper Landing, where ground levels were raised and river banks reinforced. On the other side of the river, it installed flood walls and pumps. At the downtown airport, removable flood walls have kept the airport open through high river levels.

The city spent decades "taking action to flood-proof itself," said city engineer John Maczko.

Other Minnesota river towns are seeing the payoff this year from years of flood planning.

Federal and state dollars helped Chaska build a levee and diversion channels along the Minnesota River. Delano moved homes out of the Crow River flood plain and South St. Paul built an earthen levee and floodwall to reduce flood damage.

State, federal and local governments have spent roughly $700 million to shore up flood-prone communities across Minnesota since 1997 — the year floods devastated the Red River valley , said Kent Lokkesmoe, director of capital investment with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Emergency officials are "making significant progress" now helping this year's hardest-hit towns because of work done in prior years, he added.

Owatonna, for instance, has been hit with flooding this spring. "But we over the last few years have purchased and removed 14 homes from the flood plain, so they aren't there to be damaged," Lokkesmoe said.

"New Ulm built a levee, so that protected homes adjacent to the Minnesota River. Inver Grove Heights has done a bunch of acquisitions and buyouts. So those structures aren't around to be damaged," he added.

Some of the places seeing the worst right now aren't generally flood prone or are too rural to justify the construction of multi-million dollar safeguards, Lokkesmoe said.

The neighborhoods around Prior Lake are less likely to flood, but the water rose anyway. The city takes on water faster than its outflow pipes can drain. The lake has been rising even after the rains eased. Watershed officials are already looking at projects that could help bring lake levels down in the future.

Flooding along Lower Prior Lake
A volunteer loads sandbags that will help shore up the sandbag walls along Watersedge Trail NE on the northeast side of Lower Prior Lake.
Peter Cox/MPR News

Earlier this week on the northwest side of Lower Prior Lake, Sue Buckingham, her neighbors and some volunteers filled up a canoe and rowboat with sandbags to build up the flood wall around her home.

Buckingham's street had more than 3 feet of standing lake water in some areas, levels that hadn't been seen since 1983.

Quick reaction by the city and by volunteers helped protect most houses in the area, she said, adding, "We've been very proactive and really on it — taking care of business."

MPR News reporter Dan Gunderson contributed to this report.