Residents optimistic as historic Rainy Lake floodwaters recede in northern Minnesota

After peaking at a record high level in mid-June, the water has dropped nearly 2 feet. The National Weather Service predicts the lake will drop by nearly another foot by Friday, July 15.

A sandbag wall protecting buildings near Ranier, Minnesota, on June 15. Water levels along Rainy Lake are receding from June's record high, but remain well above normal.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News file photo
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DULUTH -- Gary Potter has spent the past two months nervously watching the swollen waters of Rainy Lake press against the head-high sandbag wall he built in his backyard, to keep the record-setting flooding away from his home.

Now, as the water continues to recede, he and his neighbors who live along the giant 50-mile-long lake on the Canadian border, just east of International Falls, Minnesota, are beginning to breathe a bit easier.

"We finally feel like we're on the backside of it. Everybody's feeling a lot better today than they were a week ago or two weeks ago,” Potter said.

After peaking at a record high level in mid-June, the water has dropped nearly 2 feet. It’s now at the base of Potter’s sandbag wall, which has held up through three big storms in recent weeks that sent waves pounding against it.

The National Weather Service predicts the lake will drop by nearly another foot by Friday, July 15.


“So most of us are feeling relieved now that we're over the worst of it. And now it's just a matter of cleaning up, and fixing up our yards again,” Potter said.

Some home and business owners began sandbagging in late April, after record spring rains fell on top of a deep winter snowpack, sending water gushing into the Rainy River basin.

After months of stress and exhaustion, building and maintaining sandbag walls, and monitoring water pumps through the night, Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund said there’s a lot of optimism in the community.

Since Gary Potter bought his property on Rainy Lake in 2006, he has seen several floods.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News file photo

But he said even though the water has dropped nearly 2 feet, it’s still at about the same level as major flooding in 2014.

“So we do have a little ways to go. But we're confident that the lake’s gonna continue to drop. We're seeing a drop of close to two inches a day now,” he said.

Hedlund said he hopes the lake will retreat to near-normal levels by early August. “Then people can get on with the recovery and the cleanup process,” he said.

That process has already begun on Mallard Island on Rainy Lake, a tiny spot about two miles from shore where influential environmentalist Ernest Oberholzer began building his historic retreat 100 years ago.

The floodwaters submerged several of the unique buildings, which are on the National Register of Historic Places and now host writers, artists, conservationists and others for creative getaways.


The water began to slowly recede in late June, said Rebecca Otto, executive director of the Ernest C. Oberholtzer Foundation.

Then, last week, “it was amazing. It felt like somebody pulled the drain out of the bathtub. And we really started to see declines in lake levels,” Otto said.

Since then, volunteers have scrubbed black mold off walls. They’re also assessing the damage. Some of the buildings have buckled. Much of the island’s electrical equipment was underwater. Several appliances and a historic piano owned by Oberholzer’s mother were destroyed.

Still, Otto said she’s relieved. None of the buildings were destroyed by waves and high water. She knows the work ahead is extensive, but said volunteers are lined up to help with the work.

“I’m optimistic and hopeful that we can restore our special place that so many people have been moved by and inspired by over the years,” Otto said.

On the mainland, Koochiching County has created a plan to help residents haul away thousands of sandbags.

Teams have also been trained to assess damage to homes and public infrastructure. Hedlund expects surveys to begin in the next couple weeks as the water further recedes. Those estimates will help determine state and federal disaster relief assistance.

The county and the Minnesota Department of Transportation have also started to remove temporary grade raises on several roads, including State Highway 11 east of International Falls.


A sandbag wall protecting buildings near Ranier, Minnesota, on June 15.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News file photo

Voyageurs National Park has reopened its Rainy Lake boat launch and several campsites on the lake.

“There's a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Hedlund.

The tough part for many residents, Hedlund said, is knowing that the remaining work is going to eat up much of the summer, in a part of the state where warm weather is already fleeting.

“You just kind of get depressed and stressed out and say, ‘Geez, is it even worth it to live on the lake anymore?’” he said.

Then, when homeowners are done dealing with this historic flood, Hedlund wants them to start planning for the next one.

“There's nothing to say that this couldn't happen again, next year, even to a greater degree, There's just no certainty anymore,” he said.

Hedlund said some people may not be able to do much to protect their homes from future flooding. But others could bolster their defenses. After the 2014 floods, he said few improvements were made. He hopes this year is different.

“That mitigation piece really needs to be at the forefront of everyone's mind,” he said.


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