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By Andrew Krueger, Forum Communications, Published June 23 2012

How a three-day disaster unfolded in Duluth

DULUTH, Minn. – A week ago – though for many, it seems like an eternity – forecasters at the National Weather Service in Duluth were keeping tabs on the potential for heavy rain in the Northland in the days to come.

But no one could have predicted the forces of nature that came together to dump in excess of 10 inches of rain on parts of the region – sparking flash flooding in Duluth and up the North Shore, and a longer-duration river flood event for areas south and west of Duluth.

Hour-by-hour, here’s a chronology of the first days of the flood event, compiled from National Weather Service reports, posts on the Duluth News Tribune’s live blog and the paper’s staff reports. This list is not intended to be all-encompassing; it’s only a sampling of some of what the Northland experienced as the rains came down.

Monday, June 18

• Afternoon

The National Weather Service in Duluth issues a flash-flood watch for northeastern Minnesota for Tuesday and Wednesday, with a forecast of “2 to 4 inches possible through Wednesday morning, with some spots receiving even higher amounts.”

Tuesday, June 19

• Afternoon

Severe thunderstorms roll across much of the Northland, dropping hail and an initial round of heavy rain in many areas.

• 5-6 p.m.

Reports start to roll in from Grand Rapids and the western Iron Range of torrential rain and street flooding as another round of storms slowly sweeps across the area.

• 6:28 p.m.

As the intense rainfall moves eastward, the National Weather Service in Duluth issues a flash-flood warning for the Duluth area, eastern Iron Range and Two Harbors until midnight.

• 7:13 p.m.

Torrential rain starts to fall on the north side of Duluth.

• 7:27 p.m.

The Weather Service issues a forecast update reporting that a “high-end and life-threatening flash- flood event appears to be developing across a large part of northern Minnesota.”

• 8 p.m.

Water reported over the Highway 61 Expressway

and Scenic Highway 61

near Larsmont.

• 8:27 p.m.

Flooding reported on Interstate 35 in the downtown Duluth tunnels, with at least one car stalled.

• 9-10 p.m.

The initial surge of heavy rain ends in Duluth, but radar shows many more storms lining up to the west.

• About 10 p.m.

Duluth police ask drivers to stay off city streets; multiple reports of flooding across city.

Wednesday, June 20

• 12:13 a.m.

Street flooding reported on Superior Street in Lincoln Park business district; gravel reported to be washing down 40th Avenue West from higher elevations along Haines Road in Duluth.

• 12:52 a.m.

Car reported to have just fallen in sinkhole on Skyline Parkway near Ninth Avenue East; four occupants escape.

• 2 a.m.

A drive through Duluth reveals countless streets covered in running water, manholes spouting water and gravel and other debris strewn about.

• 2:25 a.m.

Reports on police scanner of evacuations under way in and near the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth.

• 2:40 a.m.

Report on police scanner of a seal swimming on Grand Avenue near the Lake Superior Zoo.

• 3:52 a.m.

Initial reports of a polar bear missing from its enclosure at the Lake Superior Zoo. Police and fire officials assisting zoo staff in tracking down animals unaccounted for on zoo grounds.

• 5 a.m.

Duluth police advise emergency travel only in the city.

• About 6 a.m.

Duluth police officers at the Lake Superior Zoo report all animals, including the polar bear, are accounted for.

• 9:41 a.m.

Weather spotter reports storm total of 9 inches of rain and counting near Denfeld High School in West Duluth.

• 10:30 a.m.

Interstate 35 reported closed near Carlton.

• 10:45 a.m.

As torrential rain starts yet again, U.S. Highway 53, Maple Grove Road and Mall Drive are flooded near the Miller Hill Mall.

• Noon

Heavy traffic, including vehicles detoured off I-35, moves slowly along First Street at Seventh Avenue East, dodging water, rocks and gravel still washing down from the massive washout three blocks uphill at Whole Foods Co-op.

• 12:30 p.m.

Reports of a child washed into a culvert near Proctor; child is found, injured but alive, within the hour.

• 2:15 p.m.

Reports that parts of the city of Carlton near the Thomson Reservoir are being evacuated; a few hours later 1 to 2 feet of standing water is reported in the center of town.

• 3:29 p.m.

News Tribune reports that Duluth city officials say damage is in the millions of dollars, and the city will seek federal disaster aid.

• 4:50 p.m.

I-35 is reported to be open again within the city of Duluth, but remains closed south of Carlton.

• Evening

After staying open during the day, Jean Duluth Road suffers a major collapse at the Lester River culvert north of Duluth.

Thursday, June 21

• Early morning

Rising waters of Moosehead Lake start to encroach on homes in Moose Lake; water continues to rise throughout the day.

• 6 a.m.

I-35 remains closed in both directions between Carlton and Mahtowa; Highway 23 remains closed at Fond du Lac.

• Mid-morning

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, Duluth Mayor Don Ness and other local and state officials tour damage at several locations in the city. Dayton pledges quick help from the state for the “terrible devastation.” Damage estimates exceed $100 million region-wide – and that’s just for public roads and facilities, not private property.

In large parts of Duluth, the focus for city officials and residents alike turns to assessing the damage and starting the long cleanup process.

In the Fond du Lac neighborhood and towns south and west of Duluth, the battle against rising waters continues.

Aerial views taken later Thursday showed the extent of river flooding to the south and west of Duluth: The raging St. Louis River overflowing into Thomson, washing out a large portion of the Highway 210 roadbed between Thomson and Carlton; causing serious damage to the iconic Swinging Bridge and roads in Jay Cooke State Park; and inundating much of the Fond du Lac neighborhood in far southern Duluth.

Moosehead Lake and the Moose Horn River were flooding much of the city of Moose Lake with sandbagging operations under way, and the communities of Floodwood, Brookston, Cloquet, Carlton, Scanlon and Barnum also were coping with flooding in town. Keeping those waters at bay and cleaning up as they recede will take weeks, if not months.

For those who lived through it, the Northland flooding of 2012 is an event that will be talked about for years.


Krueger writes for the Duluth News Tribune