Duluth flooding is rare, but catastrophic

July 26, 2017


Jordan Smith
Zenith News

It’s been more than five years since nearly a foot of rain fell on northeastern Minnesota over June 19 and 20, 2012. But the aftereffects of the Solstice Flood continue to this day. Stretches of Highway 210 in Jay Cooke State Park remain closed, and some of the park’s hiking trails are still not safe for foot traffic. The Thomson Dam is still being strengthened; natural culverts still being restored. The Lake Superior Zoo, where 11 animals drowned and several escaped, has never quite recovered. In total, the flood caused nearly $50 million in damages, some of it to private homes that were not insured against such an uncommon occurrence here.

The US Army Corps of Engineers maintains a network of flood control dams, but only in flood-prone areas. Built on a steep hillside, Duluth isn’t considered flood-prone, but we have been badly deluged more than once—and when it happens, it’s bad.

On August 20, 1972, nearly three inches of rain descended on Central Hillside. It had been preceded by over six inches of rain in the previous two weeks. Debris washed down the hill, including furniture and telephone poles. Damages were estimated at $18 million—over $100 million in today’s dollars. President Richard Nixon declared a federal disaster.

Flooding is one of the most common natural disasters and very few places on Earth are completely safe. Low-lying areas near rivers that swell up during excessive rain are at the most risk, but the steep terrain in Duluth tends to cause more damage as flood waters pour down the hill.

A broken dam can trigger flooding. Even beaver dams can cause water buildup that floods upstream. Melting snow and ice can result in springtime flooding, since the ground is still hard from winter, making it more difficult absorb water. In Duluth, the proliferation of asphalt has reduced water absorption, which worsened the effects of the 2012 flood.

Most floods take time to develop, but flash floods occur with little to no warning, making them especially dangerous. Never attempt to drive on any part of a road that is completely underwater, not even if the water is shallow. Your car can hydroplane on as little as 1/10 of an inch of water, resulting in the inability to steer or brake. Even shallow water can get inside your car’s engine and electrical system. Worst case scenario: That seemingly harmless little puddle might be hiding a sinkhole.

Downed power lines pose another flood-related hazard. Loss of power can hinder municipal water treatment, triggering a rise in waterborne disease. Damaged roadways may be impassible for emergency vehicles. Even trees can suffer from prolonged flooding. After the water recedes, the land remains blanketed in silt, debris, and sewage.

In the United States alone, flooding causes an average of 140 fatalities and $6 billion in damage annually, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Installing gutters and downspouts on your roof can help direct rainwater away from your home’s foundation. Rain barrels or sump pumps—even landscaping—can help divert rainwater.

Precipitation has been above average this year, but not to the extent that flooding is anticipated. We had a warmer than average spring in Duluth (by 0.6 degrees), but a cooler than average spring (by 0.5 degrees) as nearby as International Falls. Look for a warmer, drier August with thunderstorms midmonth.

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