WLSSD measures flood damage by the ton

While most measurements of the June flood damage in the Northland have come by the dollar, folks at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District have been measuring the disaster's impact by the ton.

Garbage from flood
Flood-damaged material awaits pickup in the Fond du Lac neighborhood on July 17. (WLSSD photo)

While most measurements of the June flood damage in the Northland have come by the dollar, folks at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District have been measuring the disaster's impact by the ton.

The WLSSD's Materials Recovery Center in Rice Lake Township saw record amounts of debris, flood damage goods, appliances and other items immediately after the flood, including by far the busiest day they have ever seen.

The Saturday after the flood saw a record 578 vehicles come through the center to drop off material, smashing the old record of 417 cars and trucks at the 10-year-old facility.

"And it wasn't just the most vehicles, but the loads they were bringing in were bigger, so we had the most material in one day, too,'' said Karen Anderson, WLSSD spokeswoman.

The trucks, trailers and van loads of water-logged stuff kept coming to the center, where it's sorted and hauled to be recycled, refurbished or otherwise disposed of.


More than 3,000 different households dropped trash off at the Materials Recovery Center in the week after the flood. In roughly that week, when the WLSSD opened the center to free flood-related drop-offs, the center took in:

  • 444 refrigerators, washing machines, water heaters and other appliances.
  • 269 mattresses
  • 2,316 cubic yards of mixed waste
  • 1,383 electronic items along with 65 microwaves. While the proper disposal of trash and debris left behind by natural disasters doesn't often make headlines, the WLSSD was uniquely prepared to handle flood related material. They even opened up their Household Hazardous Waste Center and took in paint, motor oil, gasoline and other stuff that was inundated in the flood, also opening a temporary mobile drop-off in Gary.

    "The good news is we were set up to handle almost all of the material that came in. We might have been a little overwhelmed on the first few days, but people were really good about it. Our staff saw the same people coming back with load after load, the people who got hit the hardest,'' Anderson noted.

    Just days into the flood recovery, WLSSD officials realized many people simply weren't going to be able to haul their flood debris by themselves. Many people don't have trucks or trailers, some aren't physically able to load and unload the stuff. The hardest hit families were too busy trying to rebuild their lives.

    "We knew within a couple of days we had to come up with something to go out and get the flood damaged material,'' Anderson said.

    Less than a week after the rain, the WLSSD had contracted with several local haulers to conduct a free curbside pickup of flood damaged goods. No one knew how much stuff might be out there. And back-of-the-envelope calculations predicted it could cost as much as $7 million if 60 percent of homes in Duluth, Hermantown, Proctor and some neighboring townships suffered at least some damage.

    In the end, however, far fewer homes needed help than expected. Haulers didn't keep track of how many homes left material at the curb. But they did keep track of the total items, including:

  • 912,660 pounds of mixed waste
  • 60,990 pounds of electronics
  • 677 appliances
  • 471 cubic yards of brush As expected, by far the largest amount of debris picked up was in the Fond du Lac neighborhood, followed by western Duluth and then the Lincoln Park neighborhood and eastern Duluth.

    The curbside pickup cost the WLSSD about $300,000, far less than expected. And haulers reported very little or no fraud -- people trying to get rid of items not flood-related.

    "It's a human health issue at some point. You can't have all that water-logged debris and carpeting and mold sitting out there, there's the possibility of disease, and vermin,'' Anderson said. "It's our job to make sure it was disposed of quickly and properly."

    The totals don't include tons of debris from flood damaged homes and businesses that went directly into dumpsters from local haulers and demolition landfills like Veit, Waste Management, Shamrock and others.

  • John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
    What To Read Next
    Get Local