'Pure devastation': Rainy Lake residents fill sandbags, fight exhaustion as floodwaters rise

Sandbags line a home
A sandbag wall and gas water pumps protect Gary Potter’s home along Rainy Lake outside International Falls.
Photo courtesy of Gary Potter

Updated: June 3, 11:45 a.m. | Posted: June 2, 3:58 p.m.

Homes are flooding, docks are under 5 to 6 feet of water, propane tanks are floating in the water and roads and campsites are closed on Rainy Lake along the Canadian border as residents continue to battle rising floodwaters, with no relief in immediate sight. 

Fueled by a heavy winter snowpack, a late ice-out, and drenching spring rains, water levels have soared in the Rainy River basin, which flows northwest from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, to Lake Vermilion near Ely and Tower, to the huge border lakes surrounding Voyageurs National Park and beyond. 

While the water has started to recede on the eastern side of the basin, the water in Rainy Lake continues to rise. It appeared to break the all-time water level record set in 1950 on Friday. It isn't expected to crest until mid to late June.

“We can’t provide a ton of optimism, unfortunately,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Ketzel Levens. “Lake levels will likely continue to rise and stay high, causing that kind of extensive damage to shoreline property that we have been seeing already.”

About 250 homes have suffered some sort of damage on the south shore of Rainy Lake, east of International Falls, said Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund. 

Rising waters on a lake
Rising waters on Rainy Lake surround the Thunderbird Lodge.
Photo courtesy of Thunderbird Lodge

“Some have floodwaters in their crawl space, and other homes have been overtaken by the floodwaters. Some people have had to evacuate from their homes,” Hedlund said. 

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But others are fighting to save their homes and businesses. Gary Potter has built a sandbag dike nearly 6 feet tall around three sides of his house to keep the water at bay. “You just hope that it holds,” he said. 

He’s running six gasoline-driven pumps around the clock to remove water that’s seeping into his crawl space. He’s planning to eventually extend the sandbag wall completely around his house, in case the floodwaters totally engulf it. 

“It’s pure devastation,” he said. “It's really surreal. I never thought I would see the day that we'd have to go through something like this.”

He said about 15 friends and family helped fortify the sandbags Wednesday night. He’s grateful for community members and volunteers who have stepped up to help him and others. “There’s just no way you can repay them, no way you can thank them enough,” he said. 

But Potter, who’s 57, said he’s exhausted. He’s been working every waking hour for the past three weeks to protect his home, which he built himself with his three sons 15 years ago. 

“You get up at six in the morning and you don't go to bed till 10,” he said. Then he has to wake up every couple hours to put gas in the water pumps.  

A sandbag reads stay strong
A volunteer wrote “Stay strong” on one of the thousands of sandbags Gary Potter has used to build walls to protect his home from rising floodwaters on Rainy Lake.
Photo courtesy of Gary Potter

“Your hands are sore. Your back is sore. I mean, it's tiring. It's day after day.” He said some of his neighbors have thrown up their hands and said ‘I’ve had enough.’

Hedlund, the county sheriff, said he expects to see more of that as the flooding continues.

“There are some people that simply have built their sandbag walls as high as they can go. And then they just can't go any higher. Or their pumps have reached capacity, and they can't keep up with it. Or their wall has been compromised. So we're seeing more and more people that make the decision that they're just too tired to continue with trying to hold back the floodwaters.”

Despite the record floodwaters, businesses in the area remain open, and are encouraging visitors to this tourism-dependent region to continue with their planned vacations. 

“We’re trying to stay very positive, really just hoping that we can get through this and stay open through this,” said Alicia Budris, an office manager and event planner at Thunderbird Lodge on Rainy Lake.  “It is our livelihood this time of year It gets us through the entire year.”

The resort has staff members working through the night fortifying sandbag walls and operating several water pumps to keep water out of the lodge basement. Despite those efforts, one of their 11 guest cabins has been destroyed, and Budris said another one is “on the brink.” 

Still, Budris said guests continue to arrive, and the restaurant continues to serve three meals a day. 

The same is true at Rainy Lake Houseboats, where Tom Dougherty rents boats up to 65 feet long for people to take across the lake and into Voyageurs National Park. 

Dougherty said the lake looks quite a bit different — the water is up in the trees along the shoreline. But he said people are still venturing out on the lake, and they’re still catching fish, albeit in atypical places on the lake. 

“We’re able to function,” he stressed. “All systems are a go.” 

But as the floodwaters continue to rise, Voyageurs National Park has closed several areas, including the Kettle Falls Hotel, the Rainy Lake boat launch and all campsites on Rainy Lake, although houseboat sites on the lake remain open. 

A flooding park
Voyageurs National Park has closed its Rainy Lake Visitor Center boat launch because of flooding.
Photo courtesy of Voyageurs National Park

The entire park backcountry also remains closed through the end of June and likely for longer, park officials said.

Meanwhile, the backbreaking effort to protect homes and businesses continues. Koochiching County workers and volunteers are filling up to 30,000 sandbags every day at Kerry Park in International Falls. And at the end of every day, they’re gone. “That just shows you how big the need is,” said Hedlund. 

An additional 50 National Guard members arrived in the area Thursday to bolster sandbagging efforts, bringing the total number of National Guard to around 100. Hedlund said that will allow the county to fill sandbags for 16 hours a day, up from 10. 

Still, Hedlund worries about people’s mental health as they struggle to protect their homes, and worries how they will hold up as the flooding stretches for several more weeks into the summer. 

“I've lived in this community my entire life and it's hard to see your friends and neighbors struggle,” Hedlund said.

Volunteers from the Red Cross and Salvation Army have behavioral health specialists on the ground to help people in need, he said. 

Another worry is high wind, which can cause large waves on Rainy Lake, even under normal conditions. “I think we’ll be holding our breath to hope that we don’t have any significant wind events up there,” said National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Moore.

“Because even if the levels drop a foot at this point, if we were to have a really strong thunderstorm come through, and put out 40 or 50 mph winds, it could produce some significant damage” and breach some of the sandbag walls that have been put in place, he said. 

Moore said even when Rainy Lake peaks later this month, it will likely be anywhere from four to eight weeks after that before the water drops to normal summertime levels. 

For Gary Potter, he’s bracing for a long fight to protect his house. He said the threat of losing his home has made him appreciate just how much it means to him and his family. 

And despite his growing exhaustion, that motivates him to keep going. “And that's all we can do right now,” he said. “Do the best we can and hopefully we can beat this thing.”