Waters keep rising along U.S.-Canadian border
RANIER, Minn. — Neighbors helped neighbors sandbag Monday, and strangers pitched in to help as well, along the Minnesota-Ontario border waters that continue to rise.
Rainy Lake was spilling over its banks here, surrounding homes where church groups and youth groups and neighbors helped those closest to the water try to save their properties.
“I don’t even know who lives here. I just know they need help,” said Melissa Vellieux of International Falls, who was working with a group of missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Vellieux has been at this for four days, and she barked out orders on how volunteers should place the 50-pound bags around a cabin on Elks Bay, about 5 miles east of International Falls. Water already was lapping at the cabin foundation. The dock was under water. The “For Sale” sign was under water, too.
“Three wide on the bottom, then two then one on top. And make sure you cover the seams,” she said, adding. “It’s kind of sad when you become an expert on sandbagging in just four days.”
From Lake Kabetogama through Namakan and Rainy lakes, and down the Rainy River to Lake of the Woods, water from record rainfall in recent weeks continues to move north through the border system. International Falls had seen 7.7 inches for the month, through Monday evening, nearly 6 inches above normal so far. Some areas nearby have seen even more ran, and all of that fell into lakes and rivers still swollen from heavy winter snows.
Every creek, ditch and river north of the Iron Range is full or overflowing, and all that water still is heading this way, north toward Hudson Bay.
“We just don’t know when it’s going to start going down. The bathtub is full and the drain is too small and the tap is still on,” said Lee Grim, a member of the water levels committee of the International Rainy-Lake of the Woods Watershed Board. “There’s something like 970 cubic feet of water going out (of Rainy Lake) and probably three times that still coming in. You do the math. It’s going to keep going up, but nobody can say for sure how much.”
Koochiching County Sheriff Brian Jesperson said he’s been told to brace for water levels to rise up to a foot higher, maybe more. The Rainy River already is at its highest level ever recorded, and Rainy Lake is seeing levels not seen since 1950.
“It’s going to surpass 2002 from what we can tell,” Jespersen said, referring to the last damaging flood along the border.
Jespersen said he was told that hydroelectric generators on the Fort Frances side of the dam that separates Rainy Lake from the Rainy River have flooded and that the paper mill at the dam had to shut its system down Monday, closing gates that usually drain water from the lake. That will slow the rise of the Rainy River downstream but will add to problems around Rainy Lake.
At Island View Lodge on Rainy Lake, volunteers continued to stack sandbags around the lodge building, and pumps are running around the clock, even as guests continue to fish and have fun on vacation. Fishing boats were tied to floating docks that remain above the water level, but guests have to wade through water to get to the dock.
“Tell everyone we’re still open. Tell them we’re still here,” said Luke Belanger, an employee at the lodge. “The parking lot is a little flooded … but the cabins are high and dry, and the bar is open.”
West of International Falls, where the Rainy, Bigfork, Little Fork and Black rivers have all spilled over their banks, the hardest hit area was near Pelland Junction. Several homes were surrounded by water and some were on the brink of flooding despite days of heroic efforts to build sandbag dikes.
“If I would have known it was going to get this high I would have sandbagged. But it’s too late now,” said Charlie Gaines, whose summer cabin was surrounded by water Monday afternoon. “It was rising about an inch an hour. It’s slowed down a little now, but I’ve only got about 8 inches, and then it’s into the cabin.”
Chuck Remus, chief ranger for Voyageurs National Park that spans much of the flooded area, said he has never seen the park lakes this high in his 22 years in the area. The high water has inundated campsite docks and beaches and floated wood from docks and dead trees that have now become hazards to motorboats on the lakes. The park has closed 24 sites, but more than 100 remain open.
“We’re open. People are still coming up. But all our campsite docks are either gone or underwater. What used to be sand beaches are gone, the water is up into the woods, and there’s no good place for people to tie up their boats,” Remus said, adding that large chunks of floating bog are breaking loose from shore and floating out into lakes, including one “the size of a building. … There are a lot of hazards on the water now, and we’re asking people not to travel at night” on the lakes.
Remus said Park Service personnel were trying to identify hazards now hidden by the high water while also working to save as many docks as possible. Other park staff have been assigned to help local property owners in sandbagging efforts.
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, DFL-Crosby, toured the area Monday afternoon and said Gov. Mark Dayton was set to arrive this morning. Nolan said he was working to find out if federal aid, including assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was available.
“I think at least Koochiching County should qualify. There’s a lot of damage up here,” Nolan told the News Tribune as he boarded a big pickup to tour the Loman Fire Hall about 20 miles west of International Falls. Nolan planned to spend some time filling sandbags.
Loman Volunteer Fire Department Chief Adam Claybundy had a crew of about 50 people filing sandbags and stacking them around the fire hall. A wall of sand more than 5 feet tall so far has held off water from the hall and nearby homes. But the East Fork of the Black River still was rising.
“We’re winning. For now,” Claybundy said. “I feel like the luckiest guy around with all the help we’re getting. People just want to help, you know?”
Back in Ranier, a crew was working furiously to shore up a system of weights on the dock at Tara’s Wharf, an ice cream shop that sits, literally, over the water’s edge of Rainy Lake. Neighbors tell her this flood isn’t as bad as 1950, when Rainy Lake rose into the small town’s main street. But the water still is going up.
The forecast calls for more thunderstorms and rain Thursday and Friday. But on Monday people in Borderland were hoping the forecasters are wrong.
“I’m ahead of the game this time. We got a good start and I think we can save the dock,” said Tara Nelson, the ice cream shop’s owner. Nelson hopes the water doesn’t rise another foot or it will be into her shop. “At least the sun is out. When the sun is out it makes even this kind of work seem not so bad.”