SUPERIOR, Wis.-Two people died and many roads remained inaccessible after a series of storms brought flooding and washouts across northwest Wisconsin just across the border from Minnesota over the weekend.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Monday declared a state of emergency in Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas and Iron counties
After surveying the region from Ashland to Superior with other officials Walker spoke at a Monday evening news conference in the Douglas County Courthouse. "It was a very visual reminder of how much damage can be done in a short period of time," he said.
From the sky, the result of days of intense rainfall could be seen as swaths of water engulfed roads, bridges and trees. Tops of buildings poked out of the water surrounding them in some places. The Nemadji River, which reached a record level on Sunday night, spread out on either side of its banks as it snaked its way into Superior toward Lake Superior and caused long detours around the city for drivers on Monday.
Keith Kesler, emergency management coordinator in Douglas County, said he couldn't even begin to guess how many roads were closed in the county due to flooding. He estimated that it will probably be "some time" before some of the significantly damaged roads reopen.
"To some point, you can't even make a determination because you can't see the damage because of the water, or it's too dangerous to get in and look at it up close. That's the case with a lot of the township roads. There's basically ravines where there used to be culverts on some of those township roads," he said. "When you've got high water, there's just not much you can do about fixing it."
Determining whether the region will qualify for a federal disaster declaration and the funding that would go with that will require careful documentation of damage amounts, Walker said. He declined to speculate on the likelihood of qualifying, but said he'd seen substantial damage.
"We saw places where the roads were shifted," he said. "Those are pretty major projects."
Evidence of damage, including photographs, should be submitted to each county's emergency management team, Walker said.
Roads still dangerous
A storm system dumped three waves of precipitation over the region over the course of three days beginning Friday. The highest amount of rainfall occurred west of Drummond, which received a three-day total of 15.04 inches, according to Steve Gohde, hydrologist with the National Weather Service.
Despite the forecast for dry weather the remainder of this week, authorities are urging residents to stay off flooded roads.
"Even now when the rivers are still high, people like to go and have a look and it seems like every year we lose somebody to our fast-moving water," Gohde said. "Use common sense and don't do things like drive around barricades, because there's a reason they're there. ... It's uncertain what's underneath the roadway. It may be washed out, it might be hollow under the road and you don't want to be the first one to find that out."
There have been several successful rescues of residents in Douglas County who became stranded after they tried to drive through flowing or standing water on road this weekend, including a resident who had to be rescued from a vehicle's roof after the vehicle was swept off the road and a couple whose car began filling with water, Kesler said.
"If you see standing water, turn around, don't drown. Don't drive through it if you don't know what's underneath it - and everybody that's gotten in trouble has knowingly driven through standing water," he said.
The weather pattern that hit the region this weekend was similar to past flooding events, Weather Service meteorologist Joe Moore explained. A warm front stretched from west to east that was continuously fed moisture.
Radar indicates that the storm had a bullseye on southern Bayfield and Douglas counties, where the storm dumped about 11 inches of rainfall, Gohde said. However, widespread areas of the region received at least 5 inches of intense rainfall over several days, which created havoc on the headwaters of streams that then travel through culverts under roads, he explained. The terrain then adds to the problems because "such intense rainfall turns into fast-moving runoff and the culverts just can't handle that," he said.
The water then flows into the main rivers, which caused historic flooding in the Nemadji River. That river crested at about 31 feet shortly before midnight Sunday and was measured at 28 feet Monday afternoon, according to Gohde.
Ashland County was dealing with flooding as the Bad River continued to rise on Monday afternoon. Road closures were also occurring around the city of Ashland due to small creeks overflowing. The area didn't receive as much rain Sunday as it had the previous two days, but the creeks had the same amount of rise because the ground was already saturated.
The Nemadji River receded from U.S. Highway 2 in Superior on Monday and the reopening of the highway "eliminated like a 20-mile detour to get around two blocks of water," Kesler said. "That probably is good news for a lot of people."
The hardest hit area of Douglas County was west of U.S. Highway 53, but the receding water on Monday left behind damage previously unseen during the storm. No major emergencies have occurred, but Kesler said access to residents isolated by flooded roads in the case of an emergency is forefront in his mind. The county's access to many residents is "extremely limited, if non-existent," but first responders have been creative in reaching stranded residents when they call for help, he said.
"You can plan and plan and train and train and then you get a rainstorm like this. It's almost impossible to be completely ready for it because you don't know what part of the infrastructure is going to fail or who is going to not really understand that there's things (they) shouldn't be doing," he said.
In addition to addressing the immediate aftermath of the flooding on Monday, Douglas County staff was busy preparing disaster assistance paperwork that needs to be submitted within 24 hours of an incident. City, town and county staff were "pulling numbers from the sky" on Monday because the water hasn't even dissipated enough to let them begin to tally a cost estimate for the flood damage, Kesler said. State officials have been calling to ask what they can do to help Douglas County, he said, "but until the water goes down, we can't fix nothing."
The Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center near Ashland was closed because of flooding on U.S. Highway 2 near Ashland, the U.S. Forest Service announced. Teams were assessing damage to roads, trails and campgrounds in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.
Among road closings announced as of late Monday:
• Minnesota Highway 48 at the St. Croix River in Pine County.
• Minnesota Highway 23 at the south fork of the Nemadji River in Carlton County.
• Wisconsin Highway 77 between Wisconsin Highway 35 and the state line in Burnett County.
• Wisconsin Highway 35 remained closed from County B to County T.
• In Lake County, Moen Road, between Westover and Hermanson roads, Old Drummond Grade near the Stewart River and Huhta Road north of Two Harbors.
Three-day rainfall totals, according to the National Weather Service in Duluth:
Drummond - 15.04 inches
11 miles south southeast of Brule - 10.73 inches
11 miles west of Drummond - 9.36 inches
Washburn - 7.45 inches
Ashland - 6.36 inches
7 miles northwest of Two Harbors - 6.06 inches
1 mile west southwest of Maple - 5.40 inches
1 mile north northwest of Cloquet - 4.52 inches
1 mile southwest of Saginaw - 3.54 inches
Burnett - 3.39 inches
2 miles northwest of Superior - 3.27 inches
2 miles south of Wrenshall - 3.22 inches
Scanlon - 3.16 inches
1 mile east southeast of Esko - 3.12 inches