Minnesota cities face the threat of floods

Published 4:30 pm Saturday, February 20, 2010

Major flooding is likely in downtown St. Paul, Montevideo and Delano this spring, officials said Friday, and they didn’t rule out the possibility that the floodwaters may approach levels last seen in 2001.

According to the National Weather Service, chances are around 90 percent that the Mississippi River will reach flood stage in St. Paul, and there’s a better than 60 percent chance of major flooding there.

The disruptions aren’t huge at those levels, but Harriet Island Park floods, and the St. Paul Downtown Airport may have to close. Down the Mississippi, Hastings and Red Wing are also at elevated risk.

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On the upper Minnesota River in western Minnesota, the data show an 80 percent chance of major flooding in Montevideo. The data also indicate a better than 60 percent of major flooding on the South Fork of the Crow River at Delano, on the western edge of the Twin Cities.

The forecast for the Mississippi at St. Paul includes a 1-in-7 chance of the river exceeding 2001 levels, while the Minnesota River in Montevideo has a 1-in-10 chance of exceeding the record level set in 2001, the Department of Public Safety said. There’s a 35 percent chance that the Crow could exceed the 2001 level at Delano.

Friday’s updated forecast for the Red River, which forms the border between Minnesota and North Dakota, includes a 96 percent chance of major flooding in Fargo, N.D., and a 70 percent chance that the river will go high enough to force diking and sandbagging in some areas. The city across the river from Moorhead, Minn., experienced record flooding a year ago, and there’s a 25 percent chance of a repeat.

Officials have said the flood risk is elevated this year because of a wet October followed by a very cold December, then heavy snowstorms around Christmas and the Martin Luther King holiday that left behind a dense snowpack. Much will depend on when and how fast the snow melts.

Given the potential for serious flooding in the Red River, Minnesota and potentially the Mississippi river valleys, the Department of Public Safety urged homeowners to consider buying flood insurance because flood damage is not covered under standard homeowner’s policies.

On the Minnesota River, Montevideo already had been bracing itself. But City Manager Steven Jones said Montevideo has removed more than 110 homes from a low-lying neighborhood since the 1997 and 2001 floods, making the tasks ahead easier, Jones said.

“At one time there was over 130 homes in Smith Addition,” he said. “There’s now only 20 homes left. The amount of people we have to get out in a bad flood situation (is) much less so it’s a lot easier.”

Jones said city staff is weighing how to prepare this time, including making sure they have enough sandbags to hold back high water.

Downstream in Granite Falls, weather service data puts the chance of major flooding at just over 5 percent. But the city has been preparing. One area of concern is a residential area just south of downtown.

“We may end up placing sandbags there again,” Mayor Dave Smiglewski said. “And that would be certainly not what we want to do but we’ll do what we have to do to protect the homes there.”

City Manager Bill Lavin said Granite Falls also took steps to reduce the potential for damage after the 2001 flood, acquiring about 25 homes along a flood-prone avenue. Granite Falls also built a flood wall downtown, and strengthened some permanent levees.