Less flooding than expected in the first waveby Madeleine Baran, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Last weekend's cooler weather helped keep rivers from reaching some of the record flood levels forecasters had predicted last week.
The downward revisions were welcome news to many Minnesota communities that have been preparing for spring floods, but officials said it's too soon to know whether major flooding could still occur in April. That depends on how quickly the warm temperatures melt the snow, and how much rain or snow falls in the next few weeks.
Mississippi River pretty, but dangerous
The Mississippi River was at 18.4 feet in St. Paul on Monday morning -- far short of the 26.4 feet recorded in the historic flood of 1965. City officials said they expected the river to rise to 19.2 feet by Wednesday.
Rick Larkin, St. Paul's director of emergency management, said the river is moving at 100,000 cubic feet per second - just as fast as Niagara Falls during the summertime.
"It looks pretty in the sunshine and blue sky, but it's very dangerous to be on or around," Larkin cautioned.
St. Paul officials closed Harriet Island to motorists over the weekend and extended the closure on Monday to include pedestrians. Shepard Road through downtown remains closed.
Residents along the Minnesota River are watching for a possible second crest along the river, which cuts a V-shaped path through southern Minnesota.
"We've got our fingers crossed," said Montevideo city manager Steve Jones.
Water levels rise in Minnesota River
The Minnesota River crested at New Ulm, Mankato, and Henderson over the weekend. Farther up the left leg of the "V," the water continues to rise.
At Montevideo and Granite Falls, the river is expected to crest by Wednesday morning, but officials expect the damage to be minimal and limited mostly to major roads.
Jones said he's been closely watching the weather north of the Minnesota River -- that area still holds considerable amounts of heavy, wet snow. Several rivers, including the Chippewa and Pomme de Terre, are expected to send more water south into the Minnesota River, boosting the chance of a second crest.
Most of the small rivers entering the Minnesota River from the south crested last week. Many are well above flood stage, including the Lac Qui Parle, Redwood, and Cottonwood rivers.
The high waters took the life of Mike Struck, a Minnesota Department of Transportation worker whose backhoe was pulled into floodwaters in south central Minnesota on Tuesday. Struck had been removing debris near Seven Mile Creek when his backhoe tipped and he fell into floodwaters, the Associated Press reported.
The high water closed many highway and county roads in south central Minnesota, but did not cause much damage to houses or buildings. At New Ulm, high water from the Cottonwood River broke a natural gas pipe over the weekend that could cost up to $50,000 to fix. The flooding also washed out sections of some roads.
A second and higher crest could occur in April, but that depends on how quickly the temperature rises and how much rain falls throughout the state. With a warmup in the forecast, residents and officials along the Minnesota River said they expect additional flooding in the next several weeks.
Officials said there's little chance of a repeat of the devastation caused by the record flood in 1997. That year, the Minnesota and Chippewa rivers combined to flood about 125 homes in Montevideo, a town of about 5,000.
The flood also damaged businesses and homes in Granite Falls. Many of those structures were later torn down or moved out of the flood plain, but the two towns still have about 20 homes each that could be destroyed if the waters reach record levels.
Record flooding could also cause problems for those who travel over the river. In 1997, high water led to the closure of nearly all bridges crossing the Minnesota between Mankato and the South Dakota border.
Cooler weather has aided the flood preparations of many towns, slowing down the melting of snow and ice.
In Hastings, city officials expect the Mississippi River to crest on Thursday. City spokeswoman Shannon Rausch said the river is now forecast to reach 18.5 feet. Last week, the forecast was about 21.5 feet, she said.
"This is really good news for us, because we don't see significant impact until about 19 feet," Rausch said.
Up to six homes would be damaged if the waters reached 19 feet, she said, and the city would need to shut down some roads. The city has helped sandbag three homes as a precaution.
Fargo-Moorhead readies for flooding
As expected, the Red River in Fargo-Moorhead is still below flood stage, but the National Weather Service said there's a 50-50 chance the river will reach record levels this spring.
The Red River usually crests later than rivers in southern Minnesota. This year, the river is expected to crest in early to mid-April.
Crews with bulldozers are building temporary earthen levees in many locations in Fargo and Moorhead. Fargo has 2.5 million sandbags ready and Moorhead has filled 1.8 million sandbags. If temperatures rise above freezing, sandbags will be delivered to homes along the river later this week so volunteers can build sandbag dikes.
Dozens of flood-prone homes have been purchased and moved or demolished in both Fargo and Moorhead. Workers are still cleaning up those areas, and earthen levees will be built where sandbag dikes were used to fight past floods.
In 2009 when the Red River reached record levels, thousands were temporarily evacuated in Fargo and Moorhead. With all the flood mitigation that's been completed in the past two years, city officials believe evacuations are much less likely this year.
But even without evacuations, fighting floods can be expensive. This is the third year in a row of major flooding in Fargo-Moorhead. Building emergency levees and sandbag dikes costs an estimated $20 million.
Fargo city officials say about $27 million has been spent since 2009 on buyouts of flood-prone homes and construction of new earthen levees.
In Moorhead, about $35 million has been spent since 2009 on home buyouts, levees and flood walls.
Other costs are more difficult to measure. In 2009, many businesses in Fargo-Moorhead were closed for a week. While every dump truck and bulldozer operator in the area is kept busy for several weeks building levees, other businesses don't fare as well.
(MPR's Sasha Aslanian, Mark Steil, Dan Gunderson and Tom Crann contributed to this report)
- All Things Considered, 03/28/2011, 5:35 p.m.