State prepares to fight floods
ST. PAUL -- Minnesotans filling and stacking sandbags are backed by a nearly invisible around-the-clock state operation coordinating everything from providing manpower to finding people to rescue horses.
The state Emergency Operations Center opens at 8:30 a.m. today with up to 100 people synchronizing a flood fight involving all 23 state Cabinet agencies, a myriad of smaller departments, federal officials and volunteer organizations such as the Red Cross. It is a one-stop disaster shop that attracts little notice outside of government decision-makers.
"I think people don't realize how far reaching it is," said Kris Eide, Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management director, adding that everyone from sewage experts to the deaf and hard of hearing office may staff the EOC.
The command center will operate 24 hours a day whenever needed, Eide said. It likely will be busy this weekend when the Red River is expected to crest.
But it is not just the Red that threatens Minnesotans and attracts state attention. The state is gearing up to fight flooding in 28 of the state's 87 counties with manpower from the National Guard, trucks from the Department of Transportation and coordination from Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
A Monday Gov. Tim Pawlenty executive order allows state agencies to provide local governments state-funded help. Counties on or near the Red, Minnesota and Mississippi rivers are included in the declaration.
In the past, flooding across the state was spread out over weeks.
"This year, it is kind of happening all at the same time," Eide said, admitting it is stretching state agency staffs so thin that her department at times asks local government emergency managers to help.
Pawlenty's order allows the National Guard to get involved when a county sheriff requests help.
"When the county sheriff calls to ask for a mission, they usually talk to me," Eide said, and if she decides National Guard help is needed, she forwards the information to the Guard.
On Tuesday, more than 280 Moorhead-based infantry soldiers were put on alert and told to be ready for Red River flood fighting.
A year ago, the Guard sent 10 helicopters, two communications trailers, two forklifts, 28 electric generators and 175 vehicles to help with Red River flooding. More than 750 troops were called up for Minnesota work, with 300 more sent to North Dakota.
Capt. Randy Belden said the Guard is ready to send as many of its 12,000 soldiers and airmen as needed.
"We have been in preparation for some time," Belden said.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation monitors road conditions and Tuesday closed U.S. 75 near the Red River at Kent and another near the Minnesota River, but several others were water covered and could be closed.
"We also work to mitigate flooding," MnDOT's Kevin Gutknecht said. "If there is a plugged culvert that we can clear to open a drainage way around a road, we do that."
MnDOT workers break up ice jams at bridges and inspect bridges to make sure they are safe.
Besides watching flooded roads, MnDOT has 860 trucks as well as other equipment available for flood fighting.
Like with other state agencies, MnDOT steps in to help when local governments cannot handle the job, said Gary Fried, the department's emergency management director. If local contractors are available and can handle the work, MnDOT often steers local governments to them.
On Tuesday, Fried referred Clay County officials to a private business to rent lighting equipment that MnDOT did not have.
While working on floods, MnDOT employees have to keep an eye on something else, Gutknecht said. "March can be a very snowy month."
Monday's gubernatorial order not only allows state agencies to help local governments, it:
Allows fuel delivery trucks serving emergency services, such as maintaining dikes, to operate without normally required permits.
Waives some weight limits for vehicles used to fight floods.
Permits commercial truck drivers to work longer than otherwise allowed.
Counties included in Pawlenty's flood emergency declaration are Big Stone, Blue Earth, Brown, Carver, Chippewa, Clay, Dakota, Goodhue, Hennepin, Kittson, Lac Qui Parle, Le Sueur, Lyon, Marshall, Nicollet, Norman, Polk, Ramsey, Redwood, Renville, Scott, Sibley, Swift, Traverse, Washington, Wilkin, Wright, and Yellow Medicine.
Minnesota state government flood information is available on the Web (some links may not be active until later today).
-- Emergency Operations Center: www.eoc.state.mn.us
Emergency management: www.facebook.com/pages/Saint-Paul-MN/MnDPS_HSEM-Homeland-Security-Emerge...
Emergency management: http://twitter.com/MnDPS_HSEM
National Guard: www.youtube.com/user/mnnationalguard
National Guard: www.minnesotanationalguard.org/2010Flood/
-- National Guard: http://twitter.com/MNNGFlood
Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.