Three years ago today, June 19, storm clouds billowed into the skies above the Northland and rain started to fall.
Over and over and over, well into the next day, downpours soaked Duluth, Superior, Carlton County, the North Shore and surrounding areas. Streets turned into streams, and streams turned into torrents. Homes and businesses were ruined, and lives of many Northland residents were upended - but, fortunately, not lost.
Among the hardest-hit areas was the Fond du Lac neighborhood of western Duluth, where Mission Creek and the St. Louis River wreaked havoc.
It's been a long climb back to normalcy for Fond du Lac residents - and for some, that climb is not yet complete. But as the neighborhood remembers the June 2012 flood, there's a sense that the community is closer-knit than it was before the deluge.
"Every year we've done something related to that weekend to remind us of the flood," said Rob Skutevik, pastor of Fond du Lac Community Church. "The message is there are tests and trials in life; what do you build your foundation on? What do we fall back on in times of need? I do know that it brought our community together."
During the height of the June 2012 flood, the seals on the doors of the church on the 500 block of 131st Avenue West held strong and prevented the floodwaters surrounding the building from causing further damage. Still, the congregation had to hold its first post-flood service in an outdoor sanctuary - the parking lot of a restaurant in Gary-New Duluth.
The church's two parsonages were worse off, but are repaired now, with one having been sold. But ramifications linger. The church will be replacing its wood siding this summer, Skutevik said; the years since the flood have seen the siding that was soaked in floodwaters go to rot.
Still, something about the flood buoyed the spirit in the congregation and community that has only deepened since. The community's annual National Night Out celebration has been more heartily attended since the flood. The church's annual recognition of the flood anniversary is well-attended and features a free public barbecue following the morning service. This year, it'll be June 28 beginning at 10 a.m.
The flood helped bring attention to the small community in the city's far western corner. Minnesota Power even funded new basketball and tennis courts to replace those left in disrepair after the flood.
Skutevik said the event heightened his own empathy and compassion for disaster victims throughout the world. Though some of his parishioners had to put off retirement in order to pay for home repairs, the congregation commemorates the flood as a reminder of the closeness it revealed.
"We were blessed," he said. "There was no loss of life and that we were able to recover from it."
State and county roads
Perhaps the most obvious relic of the June 2012 flood is the ongoing closure of Minnesota Highway 210 in Jay Cooke State Park.
Parts of the highway in the park washed away down the steep hillside, and the road remains closed, dead-ending near Oldenburg Point on the west and state Highway 23 on the east.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation mulled the idea of leaving the road closed permanently, considering the high cost of rebuilding in the steep terrain. But public sentiment pushed the agency to rebuild. Work will begin this summer and the road is slated to be open again by October 2016, said Beth Petrowske, regional spokeswoman for the agency, reconnecting the Carlton-Thomson-Jay Cooke area with far western Duluth.
All other state highway work that was spurred by the flood is complete, officials said this week.
St. Louis County, where the county highway system was riddled by flood damage, especially in the southern third of the county, ended up with more than $50 million in repairs after the flood.
All of that work has been completed except for the finishing touches on Highland Street in western Duluth, which will be finished in July. The vastly improved road reopened to traffic last fall.
The $50 million total includes significant state and federal emergency aid for road work but doesn't include how much money Duluth and rural townships paid to make repairs to their own roads, said Jim Foldesi, the county's director of public works.
Within Jay Cooke State Park, a few miles of hiking trails remain closed due to damage from the flood, but most of the park's nearly 50 miles of trail are open.
City of Duluth
The city of Duluth has largely recovered from the flood, but it's still nursing multiple wounds.
Albeit incomplete, Duluth's recovery has been expensive. To date, the city has spent more than $39 million to fix flood damage. More than $22 million of that sum has gone to pay for roads and bridges.
Repairs to city streets and bridges are a little more than 90 percent complete, said Daniel Fanning, Duluth's director of communication and policy.
What work remains should be finished this year.
Bridge projects already underway this summer include Fourth Street at Tischer Creek, Third Street at Chester Creek, Toledo Street at Chester Creek, Skyline Parkway at Chester Creek and Westgate Boulevard at Keene Creek.
Another bridge project, where Anna Street crosses Tischer Creek, is awaiting a permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources before it can proceed.
The cost of yet-uncompleted bridge work in the city is expected to total about $1.5 million.
Duluth also continues to mend the damage to local streams caused by the floodwaters of 2012. Efforts to clean up and stabilize the banks of the city's many waterways will be in full swing this year and will continue into 2016.
A section of Coffee Creek that flows through the Enger Golf Course will be tackled this summer at an estimated cost of about $500,000.
But much work remains to be done next year, with two of the biggest jobs - Amity and Chester creeks - on hold until 2016. All told, the city has received about $11.7 million in assistance so far to pay for stream restoration efforts.
When Kingsbury Creek overran its banks, floodwaters killed several animals in the Lake Superior Zoo and took out the operation's most popular exhibit - a polar bear display called Polar Shores.
Fanning said the closure of the Polar Shores exhibit left the city with "an empty eyesore in the middle of the zoo." Restoring the exhibit and bringing it up to acceptable modern zoo standards proved to be prohibitively expensive, he said.
"Where we are now essentially is that there's pretty across-the-board consensus that we're looking at the demolition of the Polar Shores exhibit hopefully within the next year. What that becomes is still somewhat in question, and that's part of a larger discussion in terms of the future direction of the zoo," he said.
The city also has sought to make improvements in its emergency response network in the wake of the flood. Fanning pointed to the adoption of a Code Red emergency communication system as evidence of that progress.
"The city as a whole has re-evaluated some of our emergency management system," he said. "If some good has come out of this, it's that, more than ever, we are better prepared for the next natural disaster, whenever that comes."
While Duluth has received significant assistance from state and federal authorities, some of its requests have proven unsuccessful.
After the flood, the city hired Adjusters International to help navigate its way through Federal Emergency Management Agency filings. The city signed a consulting contract with the firm for about $300,000 in services, expecting that it would be able to recoup the expense with additional aid.
But FEMA rejected the $300,000 claim. The city appealed, and FEMA again declined most of the claim - all but $20,000.
It appears the city will be left to cover the remaining $280,000 tab, but Fanning was quick to note that consultants from Adjusters International did visit more than 500 sites throughout the city and worked closely with city staff to submit claims that netted Duluth millions of dollars in disaster-recovery aid.
One Roof Community Housing connected 170 homeowners to Quick Start Disaster Recovery Program loans in the months and years after the flood.
"By and large we've helped who we could help," said Cliff Knettel, One Roof's deputy director. Knettel said the no-interest, state-issued loans ranged from a few thousand dollars to as much as $70,000.
The flood, Knettel explained, was particularly devastating for Duluth homes in the way the flash flood waters rushed down the hillside.
"It wasn't like the flood waters rose from a river," he said. "Because of the huge amount of rushing water it cracked foundations. We had a lot of foundation damage."
Homes rendered irreparable were bought by the city and razed.
Additionally, One Roof helped a lot of residents who found the emotional heft of the experience difficult to handle. There were low-income homeowners with mental illness who had a hard time grasping not just the nature of the event but also how to deal with it afterward.
"It surfaced a lot of issues in the community," Knettel said. "For a lot of folks with mental illness, it was very difficult for them."
Knettel said that while Quick Start loans are no longer accessible, One Roof remains capable of helping homeowners experiencing lingering needs - including low- and even moderate-income homeowners who make up to $100,000.
"Our agency does have resources to help people with their homes," he said. "We're a great resource for lingering things."
Pat Oman, who oversaw Carlton County's paperwork for FEMA, said the 2012 flood truly was a regional disaster because the effects extended over multiple watersheds from Duluth down to southern Carlton County.
With the exception of two townships, every city, township and school district in Carlton County was affected by flooding.
"It covered the whole county," Oman said.
The flood reinforced the need for a county emergency management plan, which all the county's cities and townships now have, based on the county's plan. In the three years since the flood, the cities and townships learned to better handle emergency management and take preventive measures, said Oman, who now is Moose Lake city administrator.
Carlton County Engineer Mike Tardy said flood-related road repairs wrapped up last year. He said the flood-damaged bridges were among the worst-condition bridges in Carlton County.
"If there is anything positive from that flood ... (it) was that a lot of bad bridges were replaced. ... Overall our system has been upgraded because of the flood," he said.
Moose Lake, which experienced a longer-duration river flood event, has bounced back, with multiple retail stores and restaurants opening since 2012, Oman said. The heavily damaged park also has been reconstructed.
The city has a few small street repairs remaining, and a sewage pump station that flooded still needs to be replaced. And Oman said Moose Lake may have one additional project related to the flood because it suspects that the high water affected its stormwater and sewage pipes. The city also is undergoing an infiltration and inflow study to determine whether it can apply for FEMA funding for repairs.
News Tribune reporters Brady Slater, John Myers, Peter Passi, Lisa Kaczke and Andrew Krueger contributed to this report.