Wind and water

Storm hits Kabetogama; Rainy River at record level

submitted photo
High water and powerful winds demolished the docks at Pine Tree Cove on Lake Kabetogama on Thursday. Resort owner Phil Hart estimated the damages at $80,000.
Tom Klein

REGIONAL – Phil Hart prepared for the worst, but the combination of powerful winds and high water still destroyed his docks at Pine Tree Cove.

“It was one hell of a strong wind,” said Hart, who estimated that the wind speed was in excess of 50 miles per hour on Thursday when the brunt of the storm hit Lake Kabetogama. “It was relentless.”

Hart estimated the damages total about $80,000. “That’s more than we paid when our family bought the resort 27 years ago,” he ruefully added.

Variations of Hart’s story surfaced all along the shores of Kabetogama where resort operators and homeowners have been waging battle with rising water and powerful winds.

The damages are spread across the Rainy and Namakan basins, where a combination of late snow melt and torrential rains have swelled the Rainy River to a record-breaking high.

According to Steve Gohbe, an observing program leader at the National Weather Service station in Duluth, the Rainy River rose to 22.01 feet by 10 a.m. on Tuesday, surpassing the previous record high set in 1950. The river’s depth is more than twice its normal nine feet in June.

Heavy rains during June account for the biggest share of the rise. As of June 16, 7.7 inches of rain fell in International Falls, nearly six inches more than normal. Kabetogama has received 9.62 inches through June 16.

Overall, the basin has recorded 23.39 inches of liquid precipitation since Oct. 1, 2013, Gohbe added.



About a half dozen Kabetogama resorts lost most of their docking systems as a result of flooding and high winds that hammered the region on Thursday, according to Kari Hraban, secretary for the Kabetogama Lake Resort Association.

Sally McRoberts, who operates Arrowhead Lodge and Resort with her husband, David, and parents, Larry and Betsey Warrington, said they lost the main walkway at their marina, and the remainder of the docks are underwater.

“In 2001, when we bought the resort, we had two feet of water on the docks, but we’ve seen nothing like this,” said McRoberts.

Gordon Gelo, who runs Sandy Point Lodge, said the situation is unprecedented. They’ve had pumps going to keep water from leaking into their cabins and surrounded the main lodge and one cabin with sand bags to block the rising waters. Bob Nevalainen, who chairs the Kabetogama Town Board, said they’ve filled about 10,000 to 15,000 sandbags to hold back the waters. But a lack of volunteers and sand bags last week delayed their safety measures.

Steve Steblay, supervising deputy of Homeland Security, Emergency Management and 911 Communications for the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office, said they received their first call for sandbags last week. The county does not have sandbags, he explained, and referred callers to vendors where they could purchase the bags. As the magnitude of the disaster grew, Steblay said he contacted the Army Corps of Engineers, who supplied 16,000 sandbags.

In addition, the St. Louis County Public Works Department hauled six truckloads of sand to the area over the weekend.

Volunteers from the St. Louis County Rescue Squad and crews from Voyageurs National Park and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources helped to fill sandbags this week.

Voyageurs staff even delivered the sand bags to affected resorts and homes, said Nevalainen, who also said Koochiching County supplied some sandbags to Kabetogama last week.

“We are continuing to support sandbagging efforts to protect resorts and cabins,” he said. “It’s believed that the water level has now crested, but with more rain in the forecast, we want to be prepared.”

“We’ve seen tremendous effort from local residents, volunteers and township officials who have really stepped up to help, which is no surprise,” said County Administrator Kevin Gray. “We continue to remind visitors that northern St. Louis County resorts and businesses are accessible, safe and open for business. Based on what I saw when I toured the area on Monday, resort guests were having great success fishing and enjoying shore lunches!”

Steblay said the county is considering steps to speed up relief in the future, including stockpiling sandbags in both northern and southern St. Louis County.

But he added that much of the damage could not be prevented. “It is what it is. We can’t stop the rain and the wind,” he said.

Meanwhile, Crane Lake is also dealing with flood and wind damage.

Nelson’s Resort lost four docks and its marina as wind speeds reached about 40 mph on Thursday.

“The docks were all weighted down, but we could have had three times the weight and it wouldn’t have made a difference,” said Nelson’s Resort owner Jerry Pohlman.”The winds just hammered away at them for hours and broke up the docks.”

Pohlman also reported a number of private docks on the north side of Bear Island were demolished by the strong winds on Thursday.

Handberg’s Marine and Voyagaire Lodge and Houseboats still have their docks but have had to improvise due to the rising lake level.

At Handberg’s, crews built a dock over the existing dock to make it possible for people to use the marina to get to their boats.

Voyagaire has weighted down its docks. “Anything that can hold water is on the docks,” said Gretchen Janssen, of Voyagaire. “It isn’t pretty, but it’s keeping the docks intact.”

Crews at International Falls are working to save the city’s water and sewage treatment plants. A temporary clay dike built around the sewage plant failed, but a sandbag dike has kept the rising water at bay.

According to International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson, about another foot of water would compromise the water plant. “If that happens, the city could lose its water supply,” he warned.

U.S. Eighth District Rep. Rick Nolan surveyed the damage at International Falls and Kabetogama on Monday while Gov. Mark Dayton visited International Falls on Tuesday.

State Rep. David Dill accompanied the governor on his tour on Tuesday and stressed that the flood is not just a short-term natural disaster.

“This is going to be a long-term business disaster for some, considering this is the peak of the (tourist) season,” Dill said.

Resort operators and homeowners are hoping that their visits will result in some relief for those affected by the flooding. “Even low-interest loans would help people rebuild,” said Hart, who said he fears he would lose much of his clientele if he can’t replace his docks by next summer.

Dayton said he will wait for local officials to list public and private damage reports before potentially authorizing emergency aid from a new state fund created by the 2014 Legislature. There is $3 million in the account and Dayton said this would be the first time the state has had a situation that warrants tapping the fund.


the forecast

A few days of dry, sunny weather helped to slow inflows and slightly reduce water levels. But people are still concerned that more rain may be on the way.

“We’re watching the forecast very carefully,” said Hart, who has hundreds of sandbags ready to stack should the lake level rise. “Our cabin porches are almost over the water and if the poles holding them up gave way, it would rip the porches from the cabins.”

Gohde said the forecast does call for more rain at the end of the week, but it shouldn’t be substantial. However, even an additional inch of rain will affect the pace of how quickly the lakes will drain. “We’re keeping our eye on this and informing St. Louis County so they can properly prepare.”

Meanwhile, resort operators say the high water levels haven’t had a discernable impact on visitor traffic. Most of their customers are repeat visitors to the area and are loyal to the resorts they visit.

But there have been inconveniences. With docks missing, boaters have to pull their rigs in and out of the water every day. In addition, hazardous conditions forced Voyageurs officials to close 24 campsites.

Still, the fishing remains good and one guest even hooked a fish off the deck of their cabin at Moosehorn Resort at Kabetogama.

“You can save on gas and don’t even need a boat to fish,” joked McRoberts. “We’re trying to make the best of the situation.”


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