Dry weather aids ongoing flood fight in northern Minnesota

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

There's finally a little good news in the fight against rising floodwaters in northern Minnesota along the Canadian border.

With a dry forecast, the National Weather Service predicts that the water level on Rainy Lake — which is threatening hundreds of properties east of International Falls — will rise by only a couple inches over the next seven days. That compares to some days in the past couple weeks where the lake rose that much in a single day, swollen by a heavy winter snowpack and then spring rains.

Even after the lake peaks later this month, however, forecasters say it will take another six to eight weeks for it to drop to near-normal levels.

Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund said Tuesday that it's been an exhausting battle for about 500 property owners, as the lake level exceeded the previous record set in 1950. They've built sandbag walls and are pumping out water around the clock to try to keep their homes and businesses dry.

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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

"These people that have been fighting this for a month," he said. "The fight's not over, and it's just every day they wake up, fight the same battle, trying to keep the water out, and I know a lot of them don't get much sleep."

The recent dry weather, he said, "is promising. We haven't turned the corner yet. But I think, you know, we can start to see some hope and maybe a light at the end of the tunnel that we might peak in the coming week or two."

Hedlund said National Guard members are helping to fill about 40,000 sandbags a day to protect homes and businesses that are threatened. But he said demand for sandbags has slowed along with the rise in floodwaters.

“I think we're starting to get a handle on it,” said Gary Potter, who’s spent the past five weeks building and reinforcing sandbag walls around his home on Rainy Lake. “We're starting to almost see a light at the end of the tunnel a little bit.”

The main worry moving forward is the potential for high winds. Potter said large wind-driven waves could breach his sandbag walls, or a neighbor’s, which could send water pouring toward his home.

“I do not wish this on anybody,” Potter said. “It is a marathon. This is going on week number five. This is all you do.”

“The surreal thing is when you're standing in your yard, and you’ve got a sandbag wall that's probably six feet tall, and then you look out and the water is only maybe a foot or two below that,” Potter added. “So you're standing basically below the water level.”

Koochiching County has closed some roads in the area due to flooding; others have received emergency grade raises to try to keep a driving lane above the floodwaters.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation said Tuesday it's going to extend its previously constructed emergency grade raise on State Highway 11 near Island View Lodge.