Locals endure monthslong emotional grind of living beside flooding Rainy Lake

Sand barriers are seen
According to Gary Sullivan, all water reaching Rainy Lake comes from a drainage area 150 miles in diameter. Every inch of rain translates to a rise of the lake of about seven inches. Together with several heavy rainstorms recently, the extreme high snowpack in winter, single digit temperatures in April, and rain on frozen ground shortly thereafter all contributed to the extreme flooding local residents face.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

People who have battled rising floodwaters on Rainy Lake along the Canadian border since the end of April finally got some good news last week. The giant lake crested, and now, very slowly, is starting to drop.

But weeks of constant work and stress have taken an emotional toll.

"It's hard on everybody, it's hard, just, one day after another,” said 83 year-old Gary Sullivan. He described the past several weeks as a “nonstop hell.”

Sullivan and his wife retired to Rainy Lake more than 20 years ago. She needs supplemental oxygen, so when the power company cut off electricity to their home, they took her equipment and moved in with their grandson in town.

"And so it hasn't been fun. It's not the golden years.”

Every morning he returns to the house, where he spends all day making sure the water pumps are still working, and that his 10-foot tall sandbag wall is still holding. It seems impenetrable. But still, he worries.

Sandbags are seen at the scene
With the help of the National Guard, family and neighbors, Gary Potter has completely surrounded his home with sandbags. Every two to six hours he has to refuel the water pumps to keep water seeping through the sandbags out of his backyard.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

“If we get a north wind, we'll have four foot waves here, and then it doesn't look so high," he said.

The wall is immense. Sullivan estimates it's 12 feet thick at the base, 10,000 sandbags in all.

So far it's held back the water, which is head-high on the other side. His neighbor wasn't so fortunate. Their wall was breached, which sent a torrent of water rushing at Sullivan's house and through his basement windows.

They managed to drain the water and rebuild the wall but Sullivan says it's stressful to know that could happen again at anytime.

"This is a situation where all of us along here, have to count on each other. If one of us fails, everybody fails. The water rushed in so fast that it flooded all the way to the street."

The Sullivans and hundreds of other homeowners on the south shore of Rainy Lake outside International Falls started sandbagging a month and a half ago when the giant, 50-mile-long lake started to rise.

Earlier this month the flooding broke the lake's all-time record set in 1950, and it's only come down a few inches since.

It began with a huge winter snowpack that was up to 150 percent of previous averages across the entire Rainy River basin, which drains a huge part of northeastern Minnesota and southern Ontario into Rainy Lake.

“So if you imagine kind of like a grid system across the basin, every single one of those grids, every single one of those points, had up to 10 inches of liquid sitting in it ready to melt,” explained National Weather Service meteorologist Ketzel Levens.

Then came a very late spring thaw. In late April, a record-setting four inches of rain fell over the area in a two-day period. Because the soil was still frozen, all that water and snowmelt gushed into the Rainy River basin, and eventually, to Rainy Lake.

“So it was really the perfect confluence of events,” Levens said.

From mid-April until Rainy Lake crested, it rose eight feet. Now, the water is five feet over some people's docks—if they haven’t floated away.

"It's been a battle,” said Larry Aasen, who lives with his wife Dawn a few doors down from Gary Sullivan. They're in their late 60s. For them, the flood fight comes on top of an even greater personal battle.

A person looks out
Larry Aasen’s wife Dawn looks out at their backyard and Rainy Lake looming just beyond it. She gets emotional when she talks about the weeks of facing the flood while worrying about her husband’s health.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

“The hardest is he's got pancreatic cancer,” Dawn said. “So, that's the worst of it all, we've been struggling as hard as we can. He does what he can, and I try to take up the slack.”

“She's a very good caregiver,” said Larry. “And she's been super busy running pumps, filling gas tanks and getting up in the middle of the night to make sure the pumps are still running.”

Both of them choke up, but Larry said they want to get the word out to the wider world.

“They need to know. It affects people, you know, it affects everybody,” he said.

Dawn says it's like a nightmare, on top of a nightmare.

Now that the sandbagging efforts have slowed some, Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund said he’s telling people to “just take a breath and make sure you're doing OK.”

The Salvation Army and Red Cross have community wellness teams on the ground, Hedlund said, to talk to people in need.

“We’re in this together,” said Hedlund. “We’ll fight through it together.”

Friends, family and volunteers have rallied to help homeowners along Rainy Lake.

Sees the flooded area
Pumps are running 24/7 at the Thunderbird Lodge east of Ranier to keep the business open for the summer season regardless of the extreme circumstances. According to Stephanie Heinle, whose family owns the lodge, it costs more than $700 per day just to keep running the pumps.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Down the road a few miles from the Aasens, Thunderbird Lodge has managed to stay open for three meals a day, despite the water literally lapping under their floors.

Owner Stephanie Heinle opens a door to the crawlspace, where four big pumps connected to huge hoses that are constantly sluicing out water.

"We're trying to pump it up faster that is coming in, and it's coming in fast,” Heinle said. She said it costs more than $700 a day in gas to keep the pumps running.

“Our goal is to stay open. So people come here and support us. And then we put it right back to the gas tank to keep the water out."

Heinle and her husband bought the lodge three years ago, just before the pandemic hit. They built a huge deck for outdoor seating that is now underwater.

"But we just keep on,” she said. “Because what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

If there is a silver lining, it's that there haven't been any deaths, or serious injuries. But the fight isn't over yet. The National Weather Service says it could take another two months before the lake recedes to normal levels.