For people around in 1972, flood damage a familiar sceneThose of a certain age and length of residence in Duluth have surely thought of the year 1972 the past week. That was the year of the flood trifecta: three fast falls of rain that created creek surges that laid waste to Duluth’s hillside and other areas in the region.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
Those of a certain age and length of residence in Duluth have surely thought of the year 1972 the past week. That was the year of the flood trifecta: three fast falls of rain that created creek surges that laid waste to Duluth’s hillside and other areas in the region.
For many, the destruction found on the hillside and downtown last week mirrored damage found 40 years ago.
Washouts and rubble on the same streets. Geysers from the same mains. Sinkholes. Boys in culverts.
The destructive storms in 1972 came on the 20th days of July, August and September — another tie with the 2012 storm that hit Tuesday with most of the destruction coming to light the next day, June 20.
There was more damage 40 years ago in central Duluth because of physics, city engineer Bill Bergstrom said.
“It’s concrete,” he said Friday.
Concrete holds better than substances used 40 years ago. A good example is the streets that suffered the most damage last week, Bergstrom said. Those streets, with a lot of asphalt layers and cracks between the streets and curbs, resemble the majority of what was in the city in 1972.
“It erodes and peels up,” he said.
About 10 inches of rain fell in those 1972 storms. Flash forward to June of 2012, and the only difference is that last week’s 10 inches fell in 24 hours.
Forty years ago, a heavy July 20 rain loosened things up in an already soggy summer. On Aug. 16, a storm that threatened more with tornadoes and lightning ripped through the region. Central Hillside suffered some flooding after a 3.8-inch rainfall, putting the yearly total 6.5-inches above normal. Some streets were turned to rubble.
Then came 3 inches of rain in two hours in the early Sunday morning of Aug. 20. It was the most rain in the shortest span of time in recorded Duluth weather history, breaking a 1939 record.
It was obvious that the city would be declared a disaster area. Mayor Ben Boo estimated damages would be in the millions of dollars.
Duluth’s renowned businessman Jeno Palucci was in Miami that September, visiting the Republican National Convention. The News Tribune reported that he found President Nixon and asked for a disaster declaration so the region could get federal money.
On Friday, mayors around Minnesota signed a letter to President Obama asking for a similar declaration.
Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota’s Congressional representatives visited the area last week. Assurances for a speedy recovery were made. They were joined by Mayor Don Ness, who wasn’t alive for the 1972 storm.
Gov. Wendell Anderson and Sen. Walter Mondale were quick to visit Duluth in 1972.
Ground zero was Sixth Avenue East, where Brewery Creek dammed up behind Eighth Street, right before it goes underground through the East Hillside. Water spilled over the culvert and on to surface streets, leaving a path of torn up streets and sunken sidewalks along with debris.
Nancy Wilson is a geologist and Duluth historian who has written about the hidden Brewery Creek.
“We forget,” she said of the pattern of damaging storms that hit the region. “The same stuff happens. It’s somewhat predictable.”
Brewery Creek simply failed lower on the hillside this time, she said, saving Sixth Avenue but creating headaches all last week from Fourth Street to the creek’s exit in Lake Superior near Sir Benedict’s Tavern.
The storms that hit 40 years apart have other differences as far as damage.
In 1972, on the West End, tons of sand stockpiled for the project to connect Piedmont Avenue with Interstate 35 washed down 20th Avenue West to Superior Street, closing downtown’s busiest street.
Train tracks also were washed out in the yards.
The Sept. 20 storm also hit early in the morning, dumping 3.77 inches from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. Everything that had been shored up the month before was washed out again.
The North Shore saw more rain, and two people from Two Harbors were killed when their car fell into a ravine when County Highway 3 north of Betty’s Pies washed out.
The three months of storms did an estimated $41 million in damage in St. Louis County, or more than $210 million in today’s dollars. That’s nearly double the early estimate from last week’s storm, although that estimate could rise.
It’s a hillside city with creeks, and many of them aren’t noticeable until an event like 1972 and 2012 come along, Wilson said. Putting on her geologist’s hat, she said the water moves fast and dangerously because of the impervious bedrock that is the hill.
Usually, the creeks hold up quietly and do their work with the water, she said. But not in a “500-year flood.”
“Sometimes the streams wake up and say, ‘Here we are.’”