Moose Lake battles back from floodDriving through Moose Lake Monday afternoon, a visitor would never know that half the city was covered with water four days before.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
Driving through Moose Lake Monday afternoon, a visitor would never know that half the city was covered with water four days before.
Until that visitor saw the trash. Outside of nearly every home on the lake side of Arrowhead Lane – the city’s main thoroughfare – there were tidy piles of items, waiting to be taken away to a dump somewhere. Next that visitor might notice the haz mat trailer near the Dairy Queen, with a large handwritten “Showers” sign taped to the exterior.
By Wednesday, things looked even better.
“I took a drive down Lakeshore and First Street, and about all the debris is cleaned up,” said Moose Lake Police Chief Bryce Bogenholm. “It’s absolutely amazing, the change from yesterday to today. There are big changes every day. People are working really hard.”
At a town meeting Monday evening, Bogenholm recounted the events of the previous week. Heavy rains across the Northland began Tuesday. Wednesday, June 20, began with a 5 a.m. phone call from County Emergency Management Coordinator Brian Belich asking for sandbags to use in Thomson (left over from flooding in Moose Lake over Memorial Day).
“I think we sent about 1,200 sandbags to Thomson,” Bogenholm said.
It wasn’t much later that Bogenholm and various city officials realized Moose Lake was in trouble too.
“That day we filled and placed more than 30,000 new sandbags,” Bogenholm said, explaining that the city’s volunteer fire department was paged out to help coordinate sandbagging efforts with residents, volunteers and work crews from the Challenge Incarceration Program, a Minnesota Correctional Facility boot camp for up to 90 non-dangerous male offenders.
“We’re hoping the [prisoners] will be allowed to be in the July 4th parade,” Bogenholm said, noting that the small community is working hard to make sure things are ready for the annual celebration. “They’re also going to help with sandbag removal, which may be an even bigger job.”
By the time the water began to recede on Friday, volunteers in Moose Lake filled and placed approximately 80,000 sandbags.
Moose Lake Fire Chief Steve Trenhaile said – despite the best efforts of sand-baggers – four feet of water seemed to be the norm near the river and the lake. Many homes and businesses on the lake side of Arrowhead had basements filled with water and more water creeping up onto the ground floor. The city’s elementary and high schools were surrounded by water. The campground was completely submerged, with only the tops of RVs and campers showing above the water during the worst of the flooding.
“Every time we turned around, it was something else,” Trenhaile said, describing how they first tried to protect a home on Lakeshore Drive that is the most at risk from flooding. “But the people can take a punch. They keep their heads up and keep moving forward.”
At one point, the water was rising at a rate of 2 inches an hour, Bogenholm said. On Thursday they asked the state for more sandbags. At that time, he said, they knew the fight was lost to save the homes and businesses closest to the lake and river. Volunteers made a massive wall around the city’s pumps.
“We kind of made our last stand at the pump house [between the river and the hockey shelter],” Trenhaile said, referring to the building containing the city’s main sewer pumps and control board.
“Luckily we had called and ordered back-up pumps, which were on their way,” Bogenholm said.
Unfortunately, they lost that battle too. Water ultimately got through to the pumps and “fried” them, although the valiant workers did manage to save the control board.
For between three and four hours, the city’s sewer system was non-operational. Then the back-up pumps arrived. Since then residents have been able to use their water and sewer as normal.
“We’ve seen some big improvements in the sewer system, it’s beginning to work on its own,” the city’s Spencer Skelton said in Monday’s meeting, describing how the back-up pumps were being used to assist the city’s lift stations.
However, because the pump house is not operational and can’t pump the waste to the sewage treatment ponds west of town, the sewage has been discharging into the Moose Head River. Bogenholm said Wednesday that the city is working to get a diesel pump capable of pumping all of the city’s waste to the sewage ponds installed as soon as possible, estimating that it could be one or two months before the regular pumps are replaced.
No one can swim or use any motorized boats in Moose Head Lake, because of possible contamination and debris from the flood.
On the bright side, city water tests came back with no contamination, Skelton said.
“Our well head stayed high and dry,” City Engineer Joe Ryan said. “We were confident because we never had any breaks.”
More bad news
Ironically, there was a working session scheduled for June 21 to discuss the Moose Lake School District’s facility needs. The public and members of the community task force were invited to attend.
Instead those people were battling the flood, which also affected the school, with floodwaters creeping up to the walls of the elementary school and seeping into the tunnel system around the high school containing the school’s mechanical elements.
Until Monday, school officials and residents thought the schools – which are connected – had fared pretty well.
Then came the sucker punch. Sensors detected a large amount of water in the walls of the elementary school, where there was no visible water.
“A couple days ago, we thought we had dodged a bullet,” Superintendent Tim Caroline told the crowd at Monday’s meeting. “And I want to thank all the volunteers that helped with sandbagging the school: students, teachers, everyone.”
He explained that the elementary school rooms have built-in bookcases running around the exterior walls of each room. Although school staff had cleaned up a small amount of water that had gotten into the building, they hadn’t realized the sheetrock and insulation behind the bookcases was completely saturated.
“Today they began demolishing the bookcases in each room,” Caroline said, getting choked up as he delivered the grim news to the crowd. In addition, books that were saved from the school’s media center were beginning to smell, indicating that they had been contaminated with moisture and will likely have to be thrown away.
On Wednesday he said contractors hope to start work fixing the school next week. But they have to wait for it to dry completely before they can do anything and the boiler room and the health classroom are still taking in water that is bubbling up from the ground below.
“Is it repairable? Yes,” Caroline said, explaining that a contractor had given him an initial estimate between $750,000 and $1 million to get the school ready for students by September. “But it’s not looking like insurance will pay much of anything.
Without insurance or assistance from the state or federal government, it’s money the district doesn’t have. Caroline said he’s hopeful state officials will allow the school to get 90 percent of its funding from the state instead of the 60 percent given after legislators balanced the budget by delaying payment to the schools last year.
As for questions about a new school – a proposition that has failed to pass voters more than once – Caroline said that’s no silver bullet.
“That’s a two-year process, designing and building a new school,” he said. “We need to have our school ready for students in two months.”