Carlton County rebuilds smarter after devastating 2012 flood
Mick and Carole Balow were jolted awake at 4 a.m. June 20, 2012 by loud knocking on the door of their home in Thomson, reinforced by the flashing lights of a police car.
Mick had it figured out before he opened the door.
The flood waters were coming.
"They went from door to door, telling us to evacuate," Carole said in a 2012 Pine Journal interview later that day. "They said there might be a problem with the [Thomson] dam."
Carole left for temporary shelter at Carlton High School at 5:30 a.m. that day, driving down the Munger bike trail because Dallas Avenue was flooded and the Highway 210 bridge by the dam was closed for repairs. The bridge would need even more repairs after the flood and didn't reopen until nearly six months later, on Dec. 12.
Mick followed his wife to the temporary shelter later in the morning, and described how the water was pouring over the wall next to the dam by then.
"It got underneath the road, Vermillion Street North, and lifted it up two or three feet. It's gone down now, but the blacktop ...," he said, making a wave motion with his hand.
Blacktop was washed away in spots all over Carlton County: County Road 4 west of Highway 61 in Mahtowa, next to the Highway 210 bridge near the Thomson dam, University Road on the Fond du Lac Reservation and many more.
Down the road from Thomson, Sue and Adrian Watt of Murto Road in Esko decided to take a walk around 4 p.m. that day to assess the storm damage. When they walked down near the headquarters of Jay Cooke Park, they couldn't believe their eyes.
"The swinging bridge was gone," Sue told Pine Journal publisher Wendy Johnson. "It was gone."
She said one of the first two stone pillars that supported the iconic bridge was completely washed away, as well as half of another one. Though several more were still standing, she said the decking was twisted and mangled.
"You just wouldn't believe the power and level of the water," said Sue, saying the surface of the St. Louis River was above the level of the bridge.
The major washout east of park headquarters was caused when Forbay Lake broke through its embankment and drained to the St. Louis River, said Todd Campbell, a project manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Forbay Lake was a 30-acre impoundment that channeled part of the flow of the St. Louis River to Minnesota Power's Thomson Hydro Station. That washout was 200 to 300 feet across and at least 50 feet deep, Campbell said. Even above the washout, remaining trees had bark stripped away by floodwaters.
"The volume of material that must have come down there in a matter of seconds is just mind-boggling," Campbell said.
All over Carlton County there was damage from the high waters.
Downtown Barnum flooded; the city park and county fairgrounds were submerged with the high waters.
In Scanlon, the River Inn lived up to its name, as the St. Louis River made its way through the doors of the bar and grill by roughly 9 a.m. that Wednesday morning.
Then-owner Randy Stolan was at the bar with numerous patrons, friends and many others who came simply to gawk as the river kept rising.
"It [the restaurant] might just wash down the river," he said with a dry chuckle.
As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 20, the National Weather Service in Duluth put the 24-hour rainfall totals at 7.7 inches in the Scanlon/Cloquet area, 6.1 inches in Wright and 7.8 inches in Wrenshall.
The flood waters took a longer to peak in Moose Lake, but the southern Carlton County city got hit hard when they did. After sending about 1,200 sandbags to Thomson, Moose Lake Police Chief Bryce Bogenholm 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 between Moose Lake and Willow River.
By the time the water began to recede on June 22, 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 Lane 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 vacant RVs and campers showing above the water during the worst of the flooding.
At one point, the water was rising at a rate of 2 inches an hour, Bogenholm said. On Thursday, June 21, they asked the state for more sandbags. 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.
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. Even after it got back online, it continued discharging untreated sewage into the Moose Head River for some time after the flood.
"Luckily we had called and ordered back-up pumps, which were on their way," Bogenholm said.
Law enforcement officials and firefighters played a starring role in the evacuations and faced an even more challenging scenario, keeping people from making unwise choices in their rush to assess the damage.
In the five years since that 500-year-flood, local officials worked to repair the damages, and also to try to prevent future disasters.
In Carlton County there were 318 damaged sites in June 2012 and 42 closures, according to Assistant County Engineer Milt Hagen. The closures included bridge, roadway and culverts washed out by the massive amounts of water dumped on, in and through them in a relatively short time.
While some of the repairs were being made, several of the culverts were upsized to be able to handle larger amounts of water than the old ones.
"They can handle more water, but not another 500-year flood," said Hagen. He added that the county finished the repair projects in 2014 and finished up the paperwork with FEMA earlier this year. The total flood costs for Carlton County came to $3,903,645, according to Administrative Assistant Mark Linne.
"That was $638,602 for road maintenance and $3,265,043 for the repair/replacement of bridges and culverts and approaches to them," said Linne.
The city of Cloquet fared a little better. According to City Engineer Caleb Peterson, there were two large washouts: the Lake Superior Waterline in Duluth — which cost $300,000 to repair — and a culvert at Fond du Lac Creek on Reservation Road that washed out and was replaced with a bridge for about $600,000. Fond du Lac acquired federal funding for the bridge, so no cost was incurred by the city of Cloquet.
"We were fairly fortunate we had a lot less damage than other places," said Peterson. He added that most of the repairs were made in the same year as the flood.
Repairs and upgrades were made to a few parts of town due to the storm.
"Since that time, approximately $4.3 million has been spent on infrastructure upgrades which were directly related to issues experienced during the flood," Peterson said. "Examples included the reconstruction of Eighth Street and 22nd Street along with Sanitary Sewer CIPP lining at various locations around Cloquet."
Peterson said that most of the damage was done on the private side.
"We are in a better place than in 2012," said Peterson.
Five years later, Moose Lake is definitely in a better place.
The school district is set to open a new K-12 facility the fall, on much higher ground, far away from the lake and the river.
The main lift station for sewage treatment by the river has been redesigned and moved to higher elevation that's several feet above the high water mark from 2012.
City Administrator Tim Peterson pointed out that most of the city's measures were tested when the city flooded again in 2016. Although the floodwaters didn't reach the levels of 2012, they did threaten many of the same spots.
"We took note of everything that happened in 2012 and one of the things we did was built a temporary berm around the hockey arena last summer, so if water got that high, it gave us a couple more feet," he said, noting that the hockey arena stayed dry last summer.
It helped that many of the city's employees in the police, fire and public works departments had been there in 2012 and were experienced.
"I don't think any community is natural-disaster-proof," Peterson said. "But after 2012, our emergency plan became a little more clear about what we needed to protect immediately and what steps we needed to take. In 2016 we were much more prepared and knew what needed to be done."
The city of Moose Lake has still not closed the chapter on the 2012 flood, he added.
"We just finished our final payment for one of the roads that needed to be redone," he said, "so the work is all done, but FEMA reimbursements are still ongoing."
Although the Thomson dam withstood the 2012 flood, the structure was tested, and its hydropower station was badly damaged, knocking it out of commission for more than two years.
Chris Rousseau, Minnesota Power's manager of hydro operations, said his company expects to spend about a total of nearly $100 million to repair and upgrade the Thomson facility.
"We have made significant investments in Thomson to strengthen and harden it for these extreme types of events moving forward," he said.
Much of the work has been completed, but Rousseau said construction of additional emergency concrete overflow spillways will continue through the summer of 2018.
"The spill capacity that we're working on adding this summer will take us up to 60,000 cubic feet per second," Rousseau said, noting that the improved facility should be able to hand about 20 percent more flow than it experienced during the 2012 flood.
Amy Rutledge, a communications manager for Minnesota Power, said: "We can't predict the absolute worst perhaps, but certainly with the lessons learned from the great flood, we were able to plan and make improvements to our system."