DULUTH -- With all Northland residents apparently safe from immediate danger, state, federal and local officials began assessing damage Thursday from this week's torrential rains and flash flood and already are putting the price tag well beyond $100 million.
Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton toured several sites in Duluth Thursday morning, describing the damage from 7 to 10 inches of rain in 24 hours as "horrific." He promised all assistance the state could offer and pledged to apply for the region to be declared a federal disaster area to make more money available.
The cleanup and repair job after 7 to 10 inches of rain ravaged the area, however, is likely to take months and years rather than days and weeks, and Dayton asked for Northlander's patience.
"It's just terrible devastation. The awesome, destructive power of nature," Dayton said while looking out across severely buckled Vermilion Road in Duluth. "We'll do everything we can as rapidly as possible. But it's going to take time" to rebuild.
Duluth Mayor Don Ness said a back-of-the-napkin estimate by city engineers and others puts damage to public property in Duluth alone at $50 million to $80 million. St. Louis County officials estimated $12 million to $20 million in damage to roads and bridges.
"And that doesn't include MnDOT, Carlton County, the rural areas ... It's going to be well over $100 million region-wide," Ness said. "And that doesn't include private property."
Dayton said he has ordered all state agencies to cooperate, especially with public safety and transportation issues, and said he wouldn't rule out calling a special session of the Minnesota Legislature if needed to appropriate state funds.
Dayton said he is prepared to send a letter to the Obama administration as soon as state and city officials get better estimates of damage. But he and Ness said the scope of the damage will easily qualify for federal disaster designation.
For public damage like roads, bridges, sidewalks, utilities and parks, a federal declaration makes repair projects eligible for 75 percent federal coverage. In most cases the state would pick up another 15 percent of the price tag with local governments footing 10 percent, although in some large disasters the state has footed 25 percent with no local match needed, Ness noted.
A federal disaster declaration also makes federal funds available for private home and business owners through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Ness said the city is documenting all the damage it finds, and he urged homeowners and businesses to do the same.
"Document everything. Take pictures before you throw things out" or fix them, Ness said.
Dayton and several state officials, including commissioners of transportation and public safety, stopped at Cascade Park in Duluth, the giant sinkhole behind the Whole Foods Co-Op, saw the car that sank into a washout on Skyline Parkway, and saw the earthquake-like damage to Vermilion Road.
They then met with about 100 local officials, who detailed the devastating results of the record rainfall and the range of problems they face in rebuilding the region's infrastructure -- everything from railroads to parks
"The fact that no one has died, the fact that no one has been even seriously injured, is remarkable," Dayton said, praising local government, law enforcement and rescue crews.
Duluth Public Works Director Jim Benning told Dayton that many of the region's roads are built on clay soils, which require layers of gravel and sand before blacktop is laid. In the case of Vermilion Road and many others, the gushing water washed out the sand and gravel, leaving the roadway to buckle and collapse onto the clay. In some cases, the damage includes sewer, water and even gas utilities.
Benning said it costs about $3 million a mile to build a road in Duluth and that up to 50 miles of road in the city have at least some damage.
In some cases, it's not just the obvious damage that will need to be repaired, but roads that now appear sound and may actually be undermined and unsafe.
"I looked under one part of a road, and there was nothing under it," said St. Louis County Commissioner Chris Dahlberg. "I'm afraid we're going to see more (roads) collapsing in places. We really don't know how bad it is.
Open for business
Local officials were toeing a thin line Thursday, pleading for state and federal disaster assistance while exclaiming that the region remains open to business, including tourists.
Don't drive past any barricades, they pleaded with visitors from the rest of Minnesota -- but come on up this summer as usual.
"Duluth and the region is open for business ... Duluth is safe," Ness said as Twin Cities TV cameras rolled.
St. Louis County Board Chairman Keith Nelson said the first priority after public safety and securing road access to rural homes is reopening all trunk highways in time for the peak of summer tourism season.
"Duluth will weather this storm, and part of that recovery is keeping our tourism industry thriving," said State Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth.