With spring flooding nearly (hopefully) over, focus turns to cleanup, recovery

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Flooding on U.S. Hwy. 75 south of Halstad
The Norman Co. Sheriff's Office shared this photo of U.S. Hwy. 75 south of Halstad, Minn., on Facebook Tuesday, April 9, 2019. The road was closed because of nearby flooding.
Norman Co. Sheriff's Office

Minnesotans have now endured more than a month of spring flooding, with rivers swollen first by massive snowmelt, then by a round of spring storms — including a blizzard — causing a second crest along many of the state's major waterways.

It's not over yet — as the Red River eases toward a crest at the Canadian border in Pembina, N.D. — but the worst appears to be likely behind us, with water levels declining, roads reopening and inundated farm fields drying out across much of the state.

Still, many communities have a lot of work left ahead of them as they clean up after the floodwaters recede, and some towns are braced for more inconvenience as the threat of yet more flooding — thanks in part to Minnesota's unpredictable spring weather — lingers.

Across the state, rivers slowly subside; roads reopening

Many of the state's major rivers crested this week, and water levels are on the way down, including on the Mississippi River south of St. Paul, the lower Minnesota River and the Red River in far northwestern Minnesota.

And now that the ground is thawing and plants and trees are blooming, the vegetation is able to pull more moisture out of the soil, said Craig Schmidt, senior service hydrologist for the National Weather Service's Twin Cities office.

"We're now able to handle an inch or two of rain fairly well, without having much of an effect on the rivers," he said. "That's a good sign. So, unless we get a major thunderstorm system that parks over an area for a time period, we should be in pretty good shape."

Still, rivers continue to run high. Some remain at major flood stage, including the Minnesota River in Montevideo and Morton and the Mississippi River in St. Paul.

So if a major storm does hit, or if repeated smaller storms keep soil moisture high, "then we're going to get to thunderstorm season and we could be in bad shape again," Schmidt said.

Amanda Lee, a hydrologist at the National Weather Service in Grand Forks, N.D., agrees that, barring any "huge rainfall systems moving through," the region shouldn't see more major river rises.

But she said it's going to take a long time for water levels to recede.

A bridge across the Minnesota River is closed due to flooding
A county highway bridge across the Minnesota River closed due to flooding on Monday, March 25, 2019, northwest of New Ulm, Minn.
Andrew Krueger | MPR News

"It's more of a sit and wait kind of thing," she said. "There's still levees that are being used, levees that are being patrolled. Some places will have 24/7 levee patrols to make sure that it's doing what it's supposed to do and it's not breaking or cracking."

The town of Oslo, Minn., was cut off from the surrounding area by floodwaters for nearly two weeks. But on Tuesday evening, the town was finally reconnected to the outside world when state Hwy. 1 reopened, allowing traffic to flow in and out of the town from Minnesota and North Dakota.

National Guard troops, who had been sent to assist the town when it was surrounded by floodwaters from the Red River earlier this month, left early Wednesday morning, reported Kitty Stromberg, who owns Kitty's Cafe in Oslo.

"I've had the National Guard here for 11 days. You almost kind of miss them. You get to know them all, and they're such nice kids, and what they do for us," Stromberg said. "So it's kind of different not having them here anymore."

Still, she said it's time to get back to the normal routine. She said regular customers have started to return, but added that a lot of locals "are surrounded by water still out on their farms. So there's still a lot of people who can't get home yet."

In Montevideo, flood mitigation paid off, but work remains

Jim Curtiss was a first-term mayor of Montevideo in 1997 when floodwaters from the Chippewa and Minnesota rivers destroyed 80 homes.

Compared to that event, Curtiss said this year's flooding season "was a dream."

Over the past two decades, the southwestern Minnesota city has rebuilt most of the levee that was originally built in 1969 to protect the city from flooding. It's also relocated more than 100 homes out of the floodplain.

But it's still awaiting funding to complete the final phase of its levee project. Earlier this spring, as snow began to melt, Curtiss said the city was concerned the section of levee not yet replaced wouldn't be able to hold back the rising water.

So Montevideo hired a construction company to add two feet of clay to the top of the existing levee. Then, high school students stacked sandbags on top of the clay.

First, it was the track and baseball teams. Then school administrators excused entire classes to sandbag for an hour. The water never reached that high, but Curtiss said students preserved the backs of countless volunteers they would have had to recruit.

"Those kids saved the day," he said. "The high school can't be saved enough."

But now Montevideo faces the prospect of cleanup. "And that's almost worse than the flood itself," said Curtiss.

Volunteers will have to remove sandbags along about a quarter-mile length of the levee. Some they'll save; others they'll take to a landfill. Then workers have to remove the two feet of clay.

A park bathroom that was destroyed needs to be repaired; picnic tables have to be replaced. And city staff must document all the damage the flood caused to submit to the federal government for possible reimbursement.

The flood's duration takes a toll on Stillwater

The city of Stillwater, on the banks of the St. Croix River along the Wisconsin border, is used to flooding.

But the length of this spring's flooding season — over a month and counting — is wearing out residents and city leaders alike.

Mayor Ted Kozlowski said half of the city's downtown parking lots have been occupied for nearly a month by a temporary levee built to hold back floodwaters. That impact on parking is a big deal in a town that relies on tourists visiting its stores and restaurants.

And now Kozlowski is worried those levees may have to remain in place for even longer. The St. Croix River is expected to crest and begin to drop this weekend, but he's concerned another storm could cause the already swollen river to rise again.

In the meantime, the city's waterfront park is still covered in water. And work to finish the restoration of the historic pedestrian lift bridge over the St. Croix has been delayed. He had hoped to celebrate its grand opening in June; now Kozlowski said that will likely be pushed back to September.

"There's an economic toll that it takes on our town, our businesses," he said. "There's a quality of life component, there's the cost of all the work we need to put in to building these levees, and manning these levees and manning the pumps. The parking impact. It's just a lot of little things that over a long period of time start to add up."