Town of Mora fills sandbags and hopes for the best

Sandbaggers fill bags in Mora after heavy overnight rains.
Sandbaggers fill bags in Mora, Minn., on July 12, 2018, after heavy overnight rains flooded the area.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Residents and public employees in the town of Mora were at work filling sandbags Thursday, an experience that has become all too familiar.

Two years ago, a massive rainstorm caused the Snake River to overrun its banks. A similar rainstorm early Thursday morning caused flash floods that damaged basements and swamped cars. And once again, people were preparing to protect their homes and businesses from the rising river.

"This is looking very similar to two years ago, to this date," said Kanabec County Sheriff Brian Smith. "July 12, two years ago, we ended up with significant flooding here."

A rainstorm similar to one two years ago flooded the Snake River.
Two years ago, a massive rainstorm caused the Snake River to overrun its banks. Thursday, a similar rainstorm caused flash floods.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

"And we're worried we're going to end up with the same," Smith said. "That Snake River Valley and all its tributaries, it's what's being affected by all this rain. And that's what flooded us two years ago."

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Early Thursday morning, storms lit up the sky and dumped as much as 2 inches of rain per hour across parts of Aitkin, Pine and Kanabec counties, about an hour and a half north of the Twin Cities. As much as 7 inches of rain fell in just a few hours. Intersections in Mora flooded as people were driving into work. Smith said some cars were submerged.

"We had some older folks we had to walk out of about chest-deep water and get them out of their car and walk them back out to a safe spot," he reported.

That water has since receded. The concern Thursday afternoon was over how high the Snake River will get before it crests. It rose from 3 feet to over 9 feet by midafternoon. But the rate of its rise was slowing, and it was still well short of the 16 feet it hit two years ago.

An initial forecast from the National Weather Service projected the river to crest just below flood stage on Sunday in Pine City. That's downstream from Mora. Meteorologist Geoffrey Grochocinski said that forecast could change, but he added there were "no serious concerns of flooding along the river at this point."

Still, Sheriff Smith wasn't taking chances.

"I was sandbagging two years ago at a house, and we couldn't keep up. We couldn't get enough bags in place fast enough," he said. "We had to abandon it ... Those are the ones we're trying to head off before we get to that point."

Oslin Lumber Company flooded in Mora after heavy rains soaked the region.
Oslin Lumber Company flooded in Mora, Minn., on July 12, 2018.
Dan Kraker | MPR News

Smith was asked whether, after Mora's experience two years ago, he'd thought he'd have to deal with a similar situation again so soon.

"Not this quickly. No," he replied. "They told us this was like the 100-year flood. Well, that's two years ago. Apparently it's the new norm, unfortunately."

He just hoped the sandbags people were preparing this time won't be needed.