Article by: Larry Oakes and Paul Walsh
DULUTH -- U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken and U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack were in Duluth on Friday and toured the extensive damage from the week's flash flooding, as local and state officials prepare to make a case for a presidential disaster declaration and federal help in repairing roads, underground infrastructure, businesses and homes.
Meanwhile, Moose Lake, Willow River and other communities south and west of Duluth continued to deal with damage of their own from storm runoff that blocked roads and forced residents to sandbag to protect their homes.
As of midday Friday, conditions were starting to improve in a few small towns. In Barnum, streets are now clear for traffic, and residents in Carlton are being allowed back to their homes, according to the Carlton County Sheriff's Office.
However, all of Thomson and nearby Jay Cooke State Park remain off-limits, most roads in Esko are closed, and the voluntary evacuation for parts of Moose Lake is still in place.
In Thomson, the Coast Guard brought in a helicopter Thursday night from Traverse City, Mich., to rescue five people from the raging water in the small community southwest of Duluth.
In Duluth, shelters were housing about 150 displaced people as of Friday morning, according to the state Department of Public Safety (DPS).
The DPS added that Interstate 35 has reopened in both directions, and the I-35 exit ramp to Moose Lake is also open again.
Otherwise, flooding continues to halt traffic on stretches of highways in the area, among them: Hwys. 2, 23, 61, 65, 73 and 210. For specifics on the closings, visit www.startribune.com/a1428.
Near McGregor, water levels at Big Sandy Lake are now expected to rise higher than the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had anticipated.
The Corps said it made the reassessment after receiving more data on the rainfall in the area. In recent days, rainfall has totaled about 7.5 inches over a wide portion of the Big Sandy Lake Basin. This rainfall over the already-saturated soil has resulted in increased runoff and increased water into the lake.
As of late Friday morning, the lake was at 1,220.5 feet and rising at a rate of 1 foot per day. The anticipated crest for Big Sandy Lake is between 1,222.5 and 1,223.5 feet by June 30. The record lake level was an elevation of 1,224.82 on May 19, 1950.
Northeastern Minnesota's congressional delegation, after surveying damage, pledged Friday to work with the Obama administration to get federal aid to the region as soon as possible. Standing with Duluth Mayor Don Ness on a washed out section of West Skyline Parkway, Klobuchar, Franken and Cravaack said the damage they saw on a tour today will easily top the $7.5 million threshold for federal aid to rebuild public infrastructure, such as storm sewers and roads. "The leadership here has been tremendous," Franken said. "We will be supporting them and you." Klobuchar said damage assessors from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be in Duluth by Monday to help local and state officials compile hard estimates of damage to aid Gov. Mark Dayton in requesting a formal disaster declaration from the White House.
In a companion pitch for federal disaster aid for Duluth and surrounding communities, the Minnesota Mayors Association said in a letter released Friday and heading to Obama that the "historic and unprecedented level of rain" during the summer tourist season "could not have come at a worse time."
Meanwhile, in the wake of a Dayton's visit Thursday, state officials have requested that the send preliminary damage assessment teams to survey 14 northeastern Minnesota counties to establish that damage exceeds the $7.2 million threshold to apply for a disaster declaration from President Obama and the federal dollars such a declaration can accompany.
Duluth and St. Louis County officials estimated this week that regionwide damage easily will exceed $100 million from the flash-flooding triggered by up to 10 inches of rain that fell overnight Tuesday, causing creeks to rage out of their banks, sweep into homes and pock-mark the city and surrounding area with wash outs and gaping sink holes.
Duluth public works officials said the majority of the city's streets are damaged, and they sent out a list Thursday of 30 that remain impassable.
In Moose Lake, about 40 miles south of Duluth, city officials declared a state of emergency as water encroached and surrounded the town. Well into the evening, residents desperately sandbagged trying to hold back rising water. Some won. Some didn't.
About 30 percent of the city's homes had taken on water and much of the town was inaccessible as floodwaters cut off access from nearly every direction. The water overwhelmed the main pump at the city's sanitary sewer pump station, causing it to fail.
As Moose Lake battled, residents of Willow River, about 17 miles south, were advised to leave heir homes.
Torrential rains of up to 10 inches in some parts of Duluth and the region overnight Tuesday fueled raging runoff that caused the worst flooding in more than a century.
Duluth authorities reiterated that residents should stay away from streams, culverts and standing water.
The region has an opportunity to dry out over the next couple of days, according to National Weather Service forecasts.
Dayton issued an executive order Wednesday declaring a state of emergency for the popular tourist region and three other counties hit hard by recent storms. That declaration allows for emergency vehicles to move supplies to the area and the activation of the National Guard, if needed.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.