Flooded roads in ruin, repairs could take yearsby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
DULUTH, Minn. — From its landmark harbor to the rail lines that stitch across its hills, Duluth is a town built for transportation.
But a week after a storm dumped record rainfall across the region, parts of the area's road network still lie in ruin, and officials say it'll likely take until next year to fully repair the damage.
Skyline Parkway is a winding scenic drive along the crest of the hills above the city and one of the city's most heavily damaged by the flood. The iconic roadway re-opened on Tuesday. The repair illustrates how much work it will take to rebuild Duluth's streets.
N.E. MINNESOTA FLOODS
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• Q&A: Homeowners considering flood insurance
• Photos: Stunned Moose Lake comes together
• Photos: Duluth reeling from floods
• Photos: Gooseberry River in full roar
Last week's storm washed out a section of the road near Spirit Mountain recreation area and left a crevasse in the road nearly 30 feet deep. Thirteen families were stranded; they had to climb down into the gully and at the bottom step over the ankle-deep creek that cut them off from driving into town.
"The Grand Canyon, as we're calling it back here," said Lori Franklin, one of the people who live on the stranded side of the washout. Her husband nearly drove into the hole when it first opened up. The storm also washed away her driveway.
"We were home, but we weren't prepared," Franklin said. "I don't think anybody was prepared for the amount of water that we got."
It took two days, a bulldozer and a roller, an excavator and hundreds of loads of gravel and sand brought by dumptruck to reopen Skyline Parkway. The repair is one of the first steps in a long rehabilitation for roads around Duluth and beyond.
More than 40 roads remain closed. Some are missing shoulders or are covered by water; others have crumpled into sinkholes that stretch for blocks.
"Normal year of construction, we'll spend probably in the neighborhood five or six million dollars a year on road construction," said Jim Benning public works director for the city of Duluth.
He said the cost of fixing the storm damage is approaching $20 million, and that's just a preliminary estimate that only includes roads.
In dollar terms, that's four or five years' worth of damage incurred by the storm in a matter of hours. There are more than 300 sites across the city with documented damage.
"The steepness of the terrain in Duluth — the water picks up a lot of velocity going down there, and with velocity comes scour and that's what happened," Benning said. "As soon as it gains a foothold somewhere, and starts to erode that slightly, it just completely washes it out."
It's made even more difficult by the creeks that riddle the city. A few run right through downtown. Some creeks were covered by brick arches decades ago, others are buried in new concrete drainpipe. Many swelled into white-water torrents with the flooding.
While Duluth has struggled financially, Benning said tight road repair budgets were not a factor. There is little the city could have done contain that water, even with more money, he said.
"No one could predict that we were going to have a 500-year storm, and it just couldn't handle it," Benning said.
Outside of Duluth, numerous other roads and bridges are also out.
St. Louis County engineer Pete Eakman said there are more than 40 sites with significant storm damage and that the cost to fix them will likely top $20 million. Some repairs may take several construction seasons to complete.
"Most of those are at bridge locations. We do have four bridges that are just completely gone, that are major repairs," Eakman said. "It's not likely that that would happen this year. It could be into next year more."
Some damage may not be repaired.
One stretch of highway near Jay Cook State Park is just gone, said Beth Petrowske, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in Duluth.
"It looks really bad on [State Highway] 210. A lot of the areas are completely inaccessible," Petrowske said. "Those areas where we can see it, there's construction equivalent to an earthquake."
Petrowske says MnDOT is still determining whether to fix it, let alone how.
"It may be a different road when it's done," she said. "It may not be in the same corridor. It may not go completely through."
With repairs to Skyline Parkway and other streets already underway, the road to recovery is also well under construction.
- Morning Edition, 06/27/2012, 7:22 a.m.