St. Paul races to get ready for floodby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — River communities across Minnesota are in a sprint to protect their banks from rising waters. Roads are being closed, and beginning Thursday morning, the city of Stillwater will build a temporary sandbag dike along the St. Croix River.
Below-freezing temperatures will slow the rising rivers. Hydrologists say that may prevent them from reaching record levels.
In St. Paul, where the Mississippi River is supposed to crest in the next week or so, nobody is taking any chances. Residents are filling sandbags and even calling friends for a place to stay in case they're ordered to evacuate.
The Mississippi in St. Paul has been rising about two feet a day. Crews are assembling an earthen levee along Shepard Road. And large pumps in Lowertown -- one of the lowest-lying neighborhoods in the city -- have been diverting floodwater out of the sewer system.
Artists who live in one residential building have built sandbag turrets around the drainage holes in their parking lot. That way, they hope to keep floodwaters from backing out of the drains and into their living spaces.
Sol Squire, the president of the Tilsner Artists Cooperative, calls this area "Sandbaghdad."
"The three drains that are here, this is the place where the flood will come up for the first time, when it happens," he said. "To build an appropriate barrier, 3-4 feet high, broad at the base, is a serious undertaking, especially for us arty types, who aren't accustomed to that much strain."
Squire says sandbagging is an annual ritual for Lowertown residents. The city is preparing for a deluge next week that could be on par with the flood of 2001, the third-highest on record.
That kind of flooding would easily submerge riverfront parks and force the downtown airport to deploy its floodwalls.
The good news is that weather experts are backing off earlier predictions that this spring would rival the devastating record flood of 1965.
But all the snow this week -- and the strong potential for more rain -- is making life more complicated. That's especially the case for Rick Larkin, the city's director of emergency management.
"This weather, to use the term, is vexing. It's a really complex situation," said Larkin. "We have a lot of difficulty with the freezing temperatures and the precipitation we just received. We don't really know where the water levels are going to go with a lot of certainty."
Larkin says the cold, slimy wetness is also making it more difficult for city crews to lay down the earthen levee. St. Paul has changed the material of the levee because it wasn't bonding as well due to the wet pavement beneath it.
The threat of major flooding has prompted industrial businesses to take the extra precaution of locking up or relocating tanks containing hazardous material.
And last week, the city took the unusual step of sending letters out to more than 2,000 residents in the Lowertown and Upper Landing neighborhoods about possible evacuation plans.
Even though homes in those areas are likely to remain dry, officials warned that the floodwaters could overtax the sanitary sewer system, forcing the city to cut essential services. That threat is much less likely now than it was last week.
But at community meetings with riverfront residents, city officials are preparing residents for the worst. They're stressing that there's still time for residents to come up with a plan. They urged them to call friends and family now, just in case they need another place to stay.
Residents were generally good sports, but hungry for answers. One young woman asked city official Ricardo Cervantes if he can predict how long they might be out of their homes.
"It's hard to say," he responded.
Cervantes said it's too early to say how long an evacuation would be, and stressed it's not a likely outcome.
St. Paul leaders are asking the public to stay vigilant and informed. Even though the risk of record flooding is diminished, they say it's still a possibility.
The city is also working with manufacturing plants along the riverfront to secure or relocate hazardous material.
At Harriet Island, which will be submerged by this weekend, workers have surrounded a park pavilion building with large metal barriers to protect it from floating trees and other river debris.
In southeastern Minnesota, this week's rain storms and snowfall have fueled concerns among residents and city leaders. Officials in Pine Island, Red Wing, Owatonna and Zumbro Falls continue to fill sandbags and monitor the rising water levels, as area creeks and rivers begin to flow over their banks in some areas.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation reports flooding has closed a number of roads near St. Peter, LeSueur and Albert Lea.
Officials believe the cold temperatures could slow flooding, but Owatonna Mayor Tom Kuntz said the city is not taking any chances, and declared a state of emergency this week as a precautionary measure.
"After what happened last fall, everybody gets very nervous about higher waters," Kuntz said about the September flash flooding that inundated streets and communities around southeastern Minnesota.
"We're still trying to have some recovery from last fall. Some of the homeowners have lost a couple of their houses. Some of the businesses along the Straight River have not fully recovered, so this just adds to the problem and to their frustration and their worries," Kuntz said.
In southwestern Minnesota, the upper Minnesota River continues to rise at Montevideo, where a crest is possible next week. If the current forecast holds, the crest there should not cause any major damage.
The smaller rivers in southern Minnesota are expected to crest over the next few days. The Cottonwood River at New Ulm is forecast to go nearly seven feet over flood stage.
Several highways have already been closed as flood waters cover or threatened roadways. Temporary levees have gone up or are under construction in many locations, including New Ulm, Redwood Falls, Granite Falls and Montevideo.
MPR reporters Dan Olson, Elizabeth Baier and Mark Steil contributed to this report.
- Morning Edition, 03/24/2011, 8:45 a.m.