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Flooded Minnesota communities begin transition from fight to recovery

People carry sandbags
Volunteers carry sandbags to help residents fight against floodwaters with lake front property on Tetonka Lake in Waterville, Minn., on Sunday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

The torrential rain is done, but the water is still rising in some Minnesota communities. The focus is starting to switch to flood recovery, but public safety officials stress there is still a need for vigilance — and for volunteers.

In Waterville, where volunteers filled 70,000 sandbags over the past few days, police chief and emergency manager John Manning said it’s vital members of the public respect the safety barriers around the community. He also said that even when there are no signs or warnings, people driving through water need to be careful.

A person throws water and wood chips away
Stephanie Wynn throws water and wood chips away from a townhouse on Sakatah Lake in Waterville, Minn., on Sunday as the community fought back against floodwaters that damaged many homes in the small southern Minnesota city.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“Please drive very, very slow. No wakes so we are not losing sandbags and we are not pushing more water into houses,” he said. “To take it a step further, with the river systems and the sheer volume of water that’s running through, speed of that, we cannot ensure what that is doing to our bridging systems that are here. So again, be very, very careful.”

Gov. Tim Walz and state emergency management officials held a briefing Monday morning to discuss the state’s response to what the governor called “catastrophic” flooding. 

The Minnesota National Guard deployed 44 soldiers to Waterville, where they’ll help staff pump stations to alleviate flooding in and around the southern Minnesota city. 

Three children play in flood water
From left, Landen Meredith 14, Devin Becker 14 and Rowan Schmidt, 12, play on playground equipment submerged underwater next to the Cannon River in Riverside Park in Northfield on Sunday. The three were later told not to play in the water by local police.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Maj. Gen. Shawn Manke, adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, said the soldiers are no strangers to flood emergencies. 

“Our Guard members are trained and prepared to deploy in short order,” Manke said. “We can provide essential resources such as high-water vehicles, helicopter support and engineering assets to help respond to these flood emergencies.”

Walz said Monday that he is open to a potential special legislative session to address funding concerns related to emergency flooding relief.

Walz says there is currently about $26 million in the state’s Disaster Assistance Contingency Account. But he said it may not be enough money to help with public infrastructure costs tied to flood damage.

“We could be looking at — depending on what happens over the next week and the forecasts don’t look great — significant and historic flooding events that we’re seeing start to play themselves out across the state, especially in southern Minnesota now,” Walz said. “So we certainly stay open to that. I think the Legislature would be open to that, too.”

Only governors can summon lawmakers back. Walz said he remains interested in passing a construction projects bill after lawmakers failed to get one done this year.

One wrinkle is that the Senate is now tied 33-33 after a DFL senator resigned to run for Congress.

Three women look at flood damage
From left, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Minnesota Rep. Angie Craig survey the high level of the Cannon River in Northfield on Sunday. The three politicians toured flooded areas of southern Minnesota.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Tour of flooded communities

U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith met with officials on Sunday and toured the communities of Carver, Waterville and Northfield.

Smith said even just driving into Waterville, the hard work and the sandbagging done by the community was evident.

“You can see the sump pumps just gushing water out of people’s basements,” she said. “And it’s really hard to see, just to imagine what that’s like just to have your whole house become unusable because of the water.”

Both Smith and Klobuchar said they were heartened to see the community effort to fight the flood, but stressed the need in some communities for more help.

Chief Manning said he is grateful, too, for the broad response. “It really goes to show what type of quality people are coming to show up. We had one gentleman who flew out here from I believe California and another one came from Arizona to help out. It’s very touching.”

Water flows into the river
Melissa Berthelsen puts a sandbag to hold a pipe in place on the ledge between the Cannon River and the Riverwalk in downtown Northfield on Sunday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Officials in Waterville and Northfield said it’s too early to estimate how much damage each community has suffered.

Northfield Community Development Director David Bennett said they hope to know more soon. “Once the water does start to recede, then you are really going to see the cleanup and the mess and the sediment and all that sort of stuff that is left behind. So that’s the coming work in the future once the water starts to recede.”

Those estimates will be needed for the communities to apply for state and federal disaster funds.

There is also the question as to whether these are the worst floods experienced in these communities. Several say, if it isn’t the worst, it’s a close second.

People work on pipelines
From left, Justin Stets, Greg Carlson and Melissa Berthelsen work on getting pipelines to run water into the Cannon River and out of the business Carlson Capital Management in downtown Northfield, Minn., on Sunday, June 23, 2024. The river is at its highest point since 2010. City officials believe the river has crested in Northfield and it will recede slowly over time.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Carver ‘is no stranger to floods’

On Sunday, Carver Mayor Courtney Johnson met up with Klobuchar and Smith to inspect flooding in the historic city nestled along the banks of the Minnesota River.

“Carver is no stranger to floods,” Johnson said. “I would bet that it’s probably no exaggeration to say that there's probably water in 90 percent of the basements in downtown right now.”

But that, the mayor said, is “relatively minor” flood damage so far.

Water levels are now at around 28 feet but are predicted to go up to 34 feet by next week, Johnson said.

Carver’s biggest need is an estimated $13 million to finish rehabilitating a levee downtown. The levee is over a mile long and dates back to the 1960s, when it was first built to protect the city from overflowing of the Minnesota River.

“We've got to look for the long haul. And that's why we put a federal request in to upgrade this levee for the future,” Klobuchar said.

People gather around the senators to talk.
Carver Mayor Courtney Johnson (left) tells Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith about the flooding raising water levels under bridges in downtown Carver on Sunday.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

The senators and U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer are seeking funding for the levee. Johnson would love to see construction begin on the project in 2025.

“We hope to have shovels in the ground for it as early as next summer,” said Johnson. “But more immediately, we’re looking at potentially a history-making crest and that it will be the second highest since only 1965. So we’ve got a plan in place. We’ve got the right people at the table, and I'm confident that we will make it through to next week at this time.”

Until then, Johnson said Carver will be sleeping with one eye open.

Nate Roise and his wife own the Getaway Motor Cafe in downtown Carver, one of the many businesses impacted by flooding. The cafe has luckily only had minor damage because of the levee and its sump pump system.

But many businesses and houses aren’t equipped with a sump pump to help remove water.

“As the water gets higher and higher on the levee, I get a little more nervous,” Roise said. “But we have a good plan in place and we invested in the right kind of preventative measures, but we'll see what happens. You know, the next couple days will really tell the story.”

Water seen pushing through a cinderblock wall.
Water seeps through the basement walls of Getaway Motor Cafe in downtown Carver, Minnesota after days of heavy rain and flooding.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

Communities around Minnesota continue to monitor

Elsewhere in Minnesota, communities are continuing to monitor water levels. Rice County declared a state of emergency on Saturday. The Cannon River at Northfield was forecast to crest at 1 a.m. Sunday. Faribault opened a self-service sandbag station. And Morristown provided residents with sandbag supplies at its public works building.

Like many places, Rice County has barricaded flooded roads. But some drivers are ignoring barricades. Joseph Johnson, the county’s director of emergency management, said people should avoid that temptation.

“Turn around, don’t drown,” Johnson said. “You don’t know what’s happened over the last 24 hours on that road. It could be washed out. It takes about 12 inches of water to wash a vehicle away and about 6 inches to sweep you off your feet. The water is moving right now, it is extremely dangerous right now to be out in the flood water.”

A building sits surrounded by water
A building in Rice County sits surrounded by water due to flooding Saturday.
Courtesy of Rice County

Windom, a town of about 4,800 people, received 1.25 inches of rain on top of earlier heavy downpours, and the Des Moines River there had a record crest.

“We’re having a tough time just keeping up, putting up barricades,” city council member Jenny Quaid said. “We put barricades up, and then all of a sudden the water’s rising so much, the barricades are way back in the water.”

Brent Hewett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, said southern Minnesota has been hit hard in the last two days, receiving between 7 to 10 inches of rainfall. Similar rainfall submerged the town of Cook in northeastern Minnesota last week.

It helped that the rain followed a prolonged drought and dry winter, according to Hewett, but any further rain showers could potentially spell disaster.

“Unfortunately, now that we’ve seen so much rain in this area, even just that half-inch or you know anything extra, can cause this kind of minor urban or street flooding,” Hewett said.

Northern Minnesota flooding

The National Weather Service said Monday that floodwaters are receding in the Lake Vermilion area and along the Little Fork River, including the city of Cook.

In a statement, Cook city officials said recovery efforts continue after much of the city — including the downtown area — flooded last week. St. Louis County workers were on site over the weekend to help anyone needing temporary shelter. The American Red Cross also performed residential damage assessments.

Dumpsters have been stationed across the city, and firefighters will be picking up sandbags placed at curbs in Cook.

Numerous roads in the area remain closed. Lake Vermilion is two feet above its pre-rain level, according to the National Weather Service.

To the south, the city of Biwabik on the Iron Range was also seeing water levels recede Monday, said St. Louis County Sheriff Gordon Ramsey.

Ramsey said Biwabik faced challenges including gas lines and water mains being washed out by the flooding last week.

“The concern now is focusing on cleanup and damage control,” Ramsey said.

While water levels were dropping in Cook and Biwabik, the communities of Brookston and Grand Lake Township in southern St. Louis County both were being threatened by rising water levels on Monday.

Ramsey described a “bulge of water” from recent heavy rain making its way down the Cloquet River.

“In Grand Lake Township there’s probably 30 to 40 homes and cabins that are currently flooded, so they’re working on everything they can to secure properties,” Ramsey said.

Officials expect the “bulge” of water will continue to cause flooding as it makes its way to Lake Superior.

Ramsey said they suggest anyone who has a cabin or is away from their home in that area to make sure someone checks on the property for damage if they’re in a flood-prone area.

Ramsey said St. Louis County officials also were concerned about the potential for more storms with strong winds later Monday into Tuesday. In an environment where the soil is saturated, strong winds can cause trees to fall over. Fallen trees could block roads and cause power outages.

“We are monitoring it very closely and hope that the heavy rains and winds do not come to fruition tonight,” Ramsey said Monday.

MPR News reporters Feven Gerezgiher, Nicole Ki, Mark Zdechlik, Ellie Roth and Anika Besst contributed to this report.