Henderson holds out hope for flooding relief — as rivers continue to rise

Water flows across State Highway 93 south of Henderson, Minn.
Water flows across State Highway 93 south of Henderson, Minn., in March 2019.
Pat Christman | Mankato Free Press 2019

When a bill to fund infrastructure projects across the state fell through during the Minnesota Legislature’s most recent special session, it left more than $1 billion in construction funding requests unallocated — and the small southern Minnesota city of Henderson worrying about next spring.

The major bonding bill, city leaders hoped, would help pay for a fix to the city’s most regular headache: the nearby Minnesota River’s tendency to overflow its banks — and push its tributary Rush River to overtop Highway 93, one of Henderson’s main arteries.

Henderson, Minn. in the southeast corner of Sibley County.
Henderson, Minn. in the southeast corner of Sibley County.
William Lager | MPR News

Now, city leaders are hoping a new special session will help them address the flooding issues that just keep getting worse.

For six years, the Sibley County river town has been working to draw attention to its plight, asking for $24.8 million to raise the highway 8 feet so the city will no longer be cut off from the rest of the world when major flooding happens, as it reliably does every spring.

“We knew that it would be a long haul and it was going to take a great investment of resources, both time and money on Henderson’s behalf,” said Mayor Paul Menne. “We knew that would be the case. I think what we’ve really focused on is not being so frustrated by the process and that we have to work through it.”

The proposed project would raise Highway 93 several feet — and out of the 100-year flood plain — and replace at least one bridge over Rush River. It would also widen the road.

Three major roads run through Henderson: Highway 93, County Road 6 and Highway 19. All three are prone to flooding — and all three were intermittently shut down over more than 60 days in 2019, according to Rebecca Arndt, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Just this year, Highway 93 flooded four times during the relatively mild spring flooding season, and was shut down for 22 days. Over the weekend, it was closed again, as intense rainfall swelled the Rush River over its banks and onto the road. 

Highway 93, is still closed south of Henderson; MnDOT said Monday it will likely remain closed through the week. The department plans to repair the damage caused by the flooding next week. 

The financial losses are significant. When all three roads were closed for several weeks in 2017, MnDOT estimated it cost about $86,000 a day in travel impacts and the department and county roadway maintenance. 

A man points at a truck.
Henderson Mayor Paul Menne talks about the amount of traffic his small town receives on a daily basis from trucks, tourists and commuters in Henderson, Minn., on July 23. On any given day, large semis go through Henderson to get connected to Highway 169, a major artery. When it floods, many trucks end up having to detour and add additional hours to their transport.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

When those roads close, traffic is diverted for miles. Flooding is so frequent that Menne said the city leaves its road barricades permanently on the shoulder of Highway 93, just outside of the flood wall, so city crews can access them quickly.

Businesses in downtown Henderson have to plan for a decline in traffic for unknown periods of time. Schoolchildren face increased travel time on their bus routes, sometimes adding an additional 45 minutes in road closures and detours. It’s not uncommon during flooding season, Menne said, for local schools to end their day earlier than usual to ensure students get home on time, and for families to adjust their own schedules. 

Barb Conrad runs Henderson’s sole grocery store, Wagar’s, and its Shell gas station. Usually, Conrad said, Wagar’s averages about 500 customers a day. 

But in spring 2019, it took 68 days for the floodwaters to recede. And over that time, Conrad said, Wagar’s lost 60 percent of its revenue. She said only about 200 or 300 customers came through the doors each day. Some nights, she said, she decided to close the store early because there wasn’t enough business to justify staying open. 

“The whole town got quiet and sad,” she said earlier this spring, just as the ice was beginning to melt. “I think after so long of a time, it was just people going home tired.”

A person smiles near food shelves.
Barb Conrad, owner of Wagar's Grocery and Shell Gas, tries to keep a positive attitude despite flooding that impacts businesses on Main Street in downtown Henderson.
Hannah Yang | MPR News

Sierra Wigand, 24, has lived in Henderson her entire life. Flooding has made her commutes to work in neighboring communities all the more difficult. A typically 15- to 20-minute commute turned into an hour on the back roads. 

“Just trying to find alternate routes to get to work because sometimes I have to go for my other jobs in Belle Plaine,” she said. “So it’s frustrating to try to figure out how to get there.”

But it’s more than an inconvenience. Menne said he worries, every spring, when the flooding begins, that if roads are cut off completely by floodwaters, people’s lives could be at risk. 

“When we’re talking about Highway 93 being raised above the floodwaters, what we’re really talking about on the most basic level is safety,” Menne said. “Our nearest hospital is Le Sueur. Our school district is connected with Le Sueur. Our nearest hospital is Le Sueur. Our nearest mutual aid for police and fire departments is Le Sueur. We are tied together.”

The bonding bill was held up in July in a partisan fight over Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 emergency powers. 

Menne said he’s holding out hope that the state Legislature enters into another special session next month — and votes on the bonding bill to approve the funding his city has been waiting for. If approved, the state Department of Transportation can begin the two-year construction project, currently on hold, in 2023. 

Still, Menne and others in town say they’re hopeful that it’s only a matter of time before they’re able to fix the road. 

“We just need to get the legislators, the governor’s office, to come to a compromise to where they can all agree that this is important enough to go beyond partisan issues and just get it done,” Menne said. “And we’ll continue to fight for that and make those calls for that and work towards that.”

Conrad said she’s heard plenty of criticism over her choice to live in a flood-prone town. People ask why she can’t just move, she said. But she said she loves Henderson too much to ever consider leaving. Her community, she said, is worth fighting for. Flooding and all. 

“No, we’re not giving up,” she said. “We’re not giving up anymore. This is just something that has to be done. We just want one road fixed. I know it’s millions of dollars or whatever it’s gonna cost, but we know it’s the survival of the community.”

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