Volunteers work to save homes as Rainy River reaches record-high levels
The Rainy River along the U.S.-Canadian border west of International Falls reached its highest level on record Sunday, as more rain fell and residents along the river and lakes upstream continued sandbagging efforts to keep the rising water at bay.
“All I can see is water,” Adam Claybundy, fire chief in the small community of Loman, reported Sunday afternoon as he looked out from the fire hall along Minnesota Highway 11, which remains closed to traffic. He and his crew were up around the clock all weekend, pumping water and working with dozens of volunteers to stack sandbags to protect the hall and nearby buildings.
Claybundy estimated that water was running 3 feet deep across the highway at two locations in Loman, about 20 miles west of International Falls. Sandbagging efforts also were underway at homes in Pelland, along the river between International Falls and Loman.
“It’s still going up and it’s not looking good for us,” Claybundy said.
The river stage at Manitou Rapids, just downstream from Loman, stood at 21.74 feet and rising on Monday morning, up more than 6 feet in the past four days. The previous record was 21.04 feet, set during the historic flood of 1950.
The vast Rainy River basin, which includes Rainy Lake, Lake Kabetogama and other large lakes, has had to handle heavy spring snowmelt and now several weeks of heavy rain. All of that water — snowmelt and rain — channels through Rainy Lake, passes through the dam at International Falls and then is funneled down the Rainy River. The dam gates are wide open to allow as much water as possible to flow out of Rainy Lake, but water levels have continued to rise in recent days.
More rain fell Sunday; through early evening the National Weather Service reported 1.91 inches at Kabetogama; 1.89 inches at Littlefork and 1.33 inches at International Falls.
International Falls now has received more than 7.6 inches of rain so far in June, about 5.8 inches above normal and the city’s wettest start to June since record-keeping began in 1895. The previous record through June 15 was 5.66 inches, set in 2002.
LAKE LEVELS RISING
The water level at Rainy Lake on Sunday was 1,109.9 feet, referring to elevation above sea level. That was up almost a half-foot from Friday; the target level for the dam-regulated lake in mid-June is about 1,107.25 feet. During flooding in 2002, the lake reached about 1,110.5 feet; in 1950, it reached about 1,113 feet.
“Regular rubber boots don’t work anymore; you need hip waders,” reported Barry “Woody” Woods of Woody’s Rainy Lake Resort in Ranier, just east of International Falls.
Woods spent much of Sunday filling and hauling sandbags just down the road at the epicenter of sandbagging operations, City Beach. Koochiching County Commissioner Brian McBride was there, too, and estimated that volunteers have filled 50,000 sandbags so far; another 70,000 have been ordered, he said, and a sandbag-filling machine from Roseau County was on the way.
“We’re just trying to help who we can help as fast as we can,” McBride said of getting sandbags to low-lying homes, but the water continues to rise.
Winds were picking up at times on Sunday, too, which combined with high water can destroy docks — as happened Thursday. Residents and resorts have put sandbags, water-filled barrels and water-filled boats on docks to keep them from floating away.
“Our docks are loosened up but still in place” thanks to an ever-increasing number of barrels and sandbags, Christy Mitchell of the Moosehorn Resort on Lake Kabetogama reported Sunday evening. That lake in northern St. Louis County, part of the same chain that includes Rainy, also is experiencing very high water that continued to rise on Sunday.
“(We’re) anxious and stressed, but just taking it one day at a time,” Mitchell said.
Woods and Mitchell reported that their resorts — and others in the area — remain open, but they’re having to adapt to the high water and flooded docks. Navigating the lakes is tricky, too. Woods, a fishing guide, said there is a lot of floating debris on Rainy Lake; last week he passed a staircase bobbing in the middle of the lake, railing still attached.
McBride described the situation in Koochiching County as “a two-headed monster,” with flooding both along the shore of Rainy Lake and downstream on the Rainy River. County officials were set to meet early this morning to regroup and make plans for the emergency response in the week ahead.
Back in Loman, a volunteer army was out in force Sunday to help protect buildings. Several thousand sandbags were in place, with more being filled to hold back the waters of the Rainy River and a tributary, the Black River.
Soren Olesen of nearby Birchdale was among those who came to help. He said there was a “tremendous response” of people coming to help; some local churches canceled morning services so that their congregations could fill sandbags.
“Everybody just went down and shoveled dirt,” he said — first outside, and then inside the Loman fire hall as heavy rain started to fall.
The rigs were out of the fire hall and moved to higher ground, but Claybundy said he was going to continue working hard to save the hall itself — “his baby,” the chief of seven years said. Claybundy, 46, grew up in the area and said he had never seen the water so high.
“We’ll be sandbagging and pumping all night,” he said as rain continued to fall Sunday afternoon. “I hope we can hold out.”