Two years on, scars of Duluth's flood not fully healed
Two years ago on this date, the sky opened up, and the rain didn’t stop for nearly two straight days. By the time the deluge was over, it had dumped a record-setting 7.25 inches of rain at Duluth International Airport, but in still other parts of the city and its environs, 8 to 10 inches of rain fell.
The downpour turned roads into rivers and hillside streams into raging torrents. The St. Louis River rose out of its banks and swallowed much of Duluth’s Fond du Lac neighborhood. Meanwhile, water overtopping a dam in Thomson forced residents to flee their homes.
PATH TO RECOVERY The tab for flood-recovery efforts in Duluth alone is expected to surpass $45 million. While much of the damage has been mended, about $18 million of work still remains on the city’s to-do list.
In the wake of the flood, repairs were tackled in order of priority, according to Daniel Fanning, Duluth’s director of public policy and communication. Some less-immediately-crucial projects, such as rebuilding the washed out Seven Bridges Road in Lester Park, were placed on the back burner and are just now coming to the fore.
“The street work has all been accounted for. It’s still a work in progress, but we have a game plan in place,” he said, describing the $16.6 million effort to fix the city’s flood-damaged roadways.
Funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are now being released to help make park and trail repairs possible this summer. Fanning pointed to the old Congdon Park Drive bicycle path along Tischer Creek and the Fond du Lac access path to the Superior Hiking Trail as a couple examples of projects that are slated for this summer.
With the help of federal and state disaster assistance funds, Duluth plans to invest more than $4 million to undo the damage the flood inflicted on local parks and trails.
But, Fanning said, at least one major casualty of the flood will need to recover without much help in the form of disaster aid.
ZOO CHALLENGE The Lake Superior Zoo has been left largely to its own devices since Mission Creek wreaked havoc on its operations. The stream which usually flows gently through the center of the zoo turned into a deadly gush on June 20, 2012, killing 11 of the 12 animals in the zoo’s barnyard exhibit, as well as three birds: a snowy owl, a raven and a turkey vulture.
The flooded creek left the zoo’s most popular exhibit, Polar Shores, 14 feet underwater, leading to the temporary escape of a polar bear named Berlin, as well as two seals — Feisty and Vivian — who were found completely outside the zoo’s fences.
The city of Duluth has repeatedly asked FEMA for help with repairs at the zoo, but outside of paying for a new lift station, disaster aid has been denied for the facility.
“We have to recognize that we’ve probably got everything we’re going to see from FEMA at the zoo. We can only be told ‘no’ so many times before we get the message,” Fanning said.
Replacing the badly damaged polar bear exhibit, and relocating it to higher ground, would cost an estimated $12 million. And Fanning said such an expense likely could not be justified, especially considering the investments the Como Zoo recently made in its own polar bear exhibit.
Dawn Mackety, Lake Superior Zoo’s new CEO, confirmed Fanning’s assessment, saying: “There are no plans to bring back the polar bear exhibit at this time.”
Nevertheless, Fanning contends something must be done.
“Right now, we have a big empty, ugly attraction. We have to either fix it up somehow or demolish it, because it’s literally in the heart of our zoo,” he said.
OTHER OPTIONS The zoo also struck out in its efforts to obtain $8 million in state bonding funds to install an amphitheater in place of the Polar Shores exhibit and to create a new Bear Territory exhibit on higher ground, featuring other bear species.
“It certainly was disappointing not to get any bonding funds, but at the same time, the Legislature approved a new tourism tax for the city, which could lead to some fantastic opportunities for us,” Mackety said.
The Legislature authorized the city of Duluth to renew a lapsed tax on sales of lodging, food and beverages. If it is approved by the Duluth City Council as expected, the tax is expected to generate about $1.25 million per year.
Mayor Don Ness has earmarked any proceeds from the prospective tax to support the development and enhancement of recreational attractions in the St. Louis River corridor.
Fanning expects at least a chunk of the funds would go to support improvements at and around the Lake Superior Zoo, which he views as an emerging recreational hub. He said city and zoo staff have been working to develop a comprehensive plan, which should be completed by summer’s end.
“As a city, we want to see the zoo survive. It’s a valuable asset for our community. But that said, some things need to change there,” he said.
The zoo’s ticket sales have dwindled since the flood and the closure of its Polar Shores exhibit. In 2011, before the flood, about 94,000 visitors came through its gates. In the year of the flood, attendance fell to 74,000. And while the draw improved to about 85,000 guests last year, that’s still roughly 10 percent less than before the flood.
At present the zoo receives an annual subsidy of $670,000, with $510,000 of that coming from local tourism taxes and $160,000 in the form of a state intergovernmental grant
“We need to introduce more revenue-generating attractions so the zoo will be more self-sustaining in the future. But we definitely think it’s a solvable problem,” Fanning said.
HELPING HOMEOWNERS In addition to tending to public infrastructure, Duluth also sought to help residents, many of whom were denied access to funding when FEMA deemed the flood’s damage to private property insufficient to warrant a broader disaster declaration.
Nevertheless, Fanning said the city was able to pull together funding to purchase 22 properties that were damaged beyond reasonable repair. FEMA picked up about half the $3 million tab, purchasing buildings located in designated flood plains, and the state of Minnesota provided the remainder of the necessary funding.
Rory Blazevic’s home in Fond du Lac was one of the residences purchased through the buyout program.
“We had flood insurance, but that doesn’t even come close to making you whole, even though you pay through the nose for it,” he said.
Floodwaters completely filled the basement of the Blazevic home, knocking out its furnace and causing extensive damage. Rory and his wife struggled through the first winter after the flood using space heaters before finally moving out of their home. They were forced to continue to pay the mortgage for a home that was no longer habitable, while also paying for a new dwelling in Pequaywan Township, where they now live.
The buyout program took longer than Blazevic would have liked, but when FEMA finally completed its purchase of his home in February of this year it allowed him to recover from the flood and move on.
“We would never have received the help we did if Duluth hadn’t stepped up and fought for us,” he said.