Listen: PKG: Flooding toll (Kraker)

MPR’s Dan Kraker visits residents along Rainy Lake, as they battle extreme local flooding. Kraker talks with individuals about the monthslong emotional grind of battling the rising floodwaters.

The water reaching Rainy Lake comes from a drainage area 150 miles in diameter. Every inch of rain translates to a rise of the lake of about seven inches. Together with several heavy rainstorms, the extreme high snowpack in winter, single digit temperatures in April, and rain on frozen ground shortly thereafter all contributed to flooding.


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SPEAKER: Northern Minnesota saw around of severe storms sweep across that part of the state last night. Thankfully, it did not increase the problems people who have battled rising floodwaters on Rainy Lake have had to deal with. Rainy Lake is along the Canadian border. They

Have been battling high water since the end of April. But they finally got some good news last week, the giant lake crested and now very slowly is starting to drop. But as Dan Crocker reports, weeks of constant work and stress have taken an emotional toll.

DAN CROCKER: 83-year-old Gary Sullivan says it's been a nonstop hell.

GARY SULLIVAN: It's hard on everybody. It's hard one day after another.

DAN CROCKER: Sullivan and his wife retired to Rainy Lake more than 20 years ago. She needs supplemental oxygen. So when the power company cut off electricity to their home, they took her equipment and moved in with their grandson in town.

GARY SULLIVAN: It hasn't been fun. It's not the golden years they're talking about. [LAUGHS]

DAN CROCKER: But every morning he returns to the house where he spends all day making sure the water pumps are still working and that his 10-foot tall sandbag wall is still holding.

Wow, that's the highest one I've seen yet.

GARY SULLIVAN: Well, if we get a North wind, we'll have 4-foot waves here, and then it doesn't look so high.

DAN CROCKER: The wall is immense. Sullivan estimates it's 12-feet thick at the base, 10,000 sandbags in all. So far, it's held back the water, which is head high on the other side.

His neighbor wasn't so fortunate. Their wall was breached which sent a torrent of water rushing at Sullivan's house and through his basement windows. They managed to drain the water and rebuild the wall, but Sullivan says it's stressful to know that could happen again at any time.

GARY SULLIVAN: This is a situation where all of us along here have to count on each other. If one of us fail, everybody fails and the water rushed in so fast that it flooded all the way to the street.

DAN CROCKER: The Sullivan's and hundreds of other homeowners here on the South Shore of rainy lake outside International Falls started sandbagging a month and a half ago when the giant 50-mile long lake started to rise. Earlier this month, the flooding broke the lake's all-time record set in 1950, and it's only come down a few inches since. It began with a huge winter snowpack and a late spring thaw. Then when drenching spring rains fell on the still frozen ground, all that water and snowmelt gushed into the rainy river basin, which drains a huge part of Northeastern Minnesota and Southern Ontario into Rainy Lake. Now the water is 5 feet over some people's docks.

LARRY AASEN: It's been a battle.

DAN CROCKER: Larry and dawn Eisen live a few doors down from Gary Sullivan. They're in their late 60s. For them, the flood fight comes on top of an even greater personal battle.

DAWN AASEN: The hardest is he's got pancreatic cancer. So we've been-- that's the worst of it all. So we've been struggling as hard as we can. So he does what he can, and I try to take up the slack

LARRY AASEN: She's a very good caregiver, and she's been super busy running pumps and filling gas tanks and getting up in the middle of the night to make sure the pumps are still running.

DAN CROCKER: And I'm sorry to ask you to talk about this.

LARRY AASEN: [INAUDIBLE] It affects people. It affects everybody.

DAN CROCKER: Dawn Aasen says it's like a nightmare on top of a nightmare. But they're persevering. Friends and family and volunteers have rallied to help them and other homeowners. Down the road a few miles, Thunderbird Lodge has managed to stay open for 3 meals a day despite the water literally lapping under their floors.

STEPHANIE HEINLE: So this is where the water is coming in, and we're just pumping it out before it touches the floor so we can remain open.

DAN CROCKER: Owner Stephanie Heinle shows me four big pumps connected to huge hoses that are constantly sluicing water out of their crawlspace.

STEPHANIE HEINLE: So we're trying to pump it out faster than it's coming in. It's coming in fast, a little over $700 a day in gas. So our goal is to stay open. So people come here and support us, and then we put it right back to the gas tank to keep the water out.

DAN CROCKER: Heinle and her husband bought the lodge three years ago just before the pandemic hit. They built a huge deck for outdoor seating. Now that's underwater.

STEPHANIE HEINLE: So, but we just keep on. I think I have a big smile on my face, I would say, yeah.


STEPHANIE HEINLE: Because what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

DAN CROCKER: If there is a silver lining, it's that there haven't been any deaths or serious injuries, but the fight isn't over yet. The National Weather Service says it could take another two months before the lake recedes to normal levels. Dan Crocker, MPR News on Rainy Lake.

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