DULUTH, Minn. – The storm that nearly broke the back of this proud, old Great Lakes port city did not originate on Lake Superior, whose reputation as a weather-maker is proven by the 44 known shipwrecks scattered across the lake’s bottom.
Rather, in a kind of cruel irony, the 500-year flood of June 2012 was born of a slow-moving warm front out of central Minnesota – the kind of summer weather pattern that can trigger thunderstorms on the prairie but rarely changes the physical and psychological makeup of a weather-hardened city like Duluth.
Minnesota officials estimated the damage to the region’s public infrastructure from the summer deluge at nearly $108 million, making it one of the largest natural disasters in state history. That figure did not account for the roughly $30 million in private property losses caused by the flood, which damaged an estimated 1,700 homes and businesses in Duluth and surrounding areas.
Now, nearly two years after Duluth’s “storm of the century,” residents, engineers and weather experts are still wrestling with the storm’s aftermath, and questions remain as to whether the city and region are prepared for the next flood of the century.
While experts are cautious about attributing any single weather event to a warming climate, there is widespread consensus among atmospheric scientists that super storm cells like the one that ravaged Duluth last year are occurring with greater frequency and intensity, and the consequences of such weather events will be painfully felt by people who live in the storms’ paths.
And even as the region’s infrastructure – like roads, bridges and culverts – are being rebuilt, often to higher engineering standards than before, the steely confidence that Duluthians held about their city’s ability to withstand severe weather has been shaken deeply.
“The truth of it is we will continue to struggle with the aftereffects for years to come,” Duluth Mayor Don Ness told residents in a video conference marking the first anniversary of the flood in June 2013. “As a community, we’re being tested. This event will always be remembered by the dramatic images … But the greatest effect of the storm is the trauma that is less visible, less evident.”
Wayne Porter, 58, whose apartment in the city’s East Hillside neighborhood offers sweeping views of the lake, has fresh memories of the deluge. He remembers waking up around 11 p.m. on June 19, 2012, after hearing what sounded like a freight train passing by his bedroom window.
He peeked outside at the nearby culvert that carries Brewery Creek, one of a number of channeled streams that course under Duluth’s central city, to the massive lake below. The culvert, which he often sat by to hear the gentle gurgling of the creek, was filling fast as a stormwater tempest shot from a pipe undergirding the parking lot of a nearby grocery.
“It got so loud we moved our bed into the living room,” Porter recalls.
Up the hill from Porter’s apartment, Gene Johnson-McKeever, 69, an artist whose colorful murals adorn the entrance of the appropriately named Cascade Park, said she awoke at 2 a.m. to the sounds of emergency sirens and the clanging of steel manhole covers sliding down the street.
“I was scared to go down into my basement,” she says. “I could hear the sump pump pumping its little heart out.”
By morning, what Porter, Johnson-McKeever and others in this city of 86,000 discovered was that their city had in fact been ripped apart by floodwaters as the region’s creeks and rivers swelled and in some cases exploded from their channels, tearing away soil and trees, asphalt and concrete, bridges and parking lots across a broad swath of the Lake Superior shoreline.
A retaining wall still under construction to support the parking lot of Duluth’s Whole Foods Co-Op had given way, leaving a crater-sized hole and scattering construction materials across the alley and hillside next to Porter’s home. Several dozen concrete blocks still litter his backyard.
In an another image that went viral on television and the internet, a seal named Feisty perched atop a slab of pavement along Duluth’s Grand Avenue after swimming in rising creek water from her enclosure at Lake Superior Zoo. Thirteen other zoo animals not adapted to water perished in the flood.
The Neighborhood that Went Underwater
Down the road from the zoo, where several dozen families live along the St. Louis River in a neighborhood known as Fond du Lac (translated from French, meaning “bottom of the lake”), several houses were ripped from their foundations by stormwater that overwhelmed an upstream hydrodam and breeched a reservoir owned by electric utility Minnesota Power.
Reconstruction of the neighborhood remains a slow and frustrating process for residents like Judy O’Neill, whose family home occupied a bend in the river for 60 years before it was flooded and gutted by the 2012 flood.
“It’s your whole life; it just goes to the curb,” she said in an interview last fall amid the noise and dust of her gutted home, which was in the process of being restored.
Yet despite the extensive losses in places like Fond du Lac, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) denied the state’s request for individual homeowner assistance, a decision Mayor Ness called “a travesty,” noting that much of the damage occurred in middle- and lower-income areas that lack private capital to rebuild.
O’Neill, along with a handful of neighbors who chose to rebuild in Fond du Lac, has had to personally finance her home’s reconstruction as relief money flowed to other projects and priorities, including the multimillion-dollar reconstruction of Duluth’s public infrastructure. She is sharply critical of public officials who cite Fond du Lac’s extensive damage when seeking federal and state flood relief money, but who had yet to even repave the rutted road leading into her neighborhood more than a year after the event.
“If it wasn’t for the volunteers who came in here after I lost everything, I’d be right where I was one year ago,” she says.
Jim Benning, Duluth’s director of public works and utilities, acknowledges the city’s recovery has been challenging, a condition he attributes to the huge scale of the work and the region’s hilly topography.
“We’ve got several different watersheds and something like 40 creeks in Duluth. Every one of them was affected,” he says.
Lake Superior also took a powerful blow from the storm, especially in near-shore areas where sediment plumes extended from the St. Louis River and numerous other creek outfalls, turning Superior’s water from its typical slate-blue to rusty-brown.
The great lake’s sediment plumes disappeared within days of the flood, but more permanent scars remain in the region’s creeks and rivers. For example, fishermen and recreational boaters say the St. Louis River channel has changed course, creating navigation hazards where there used to be open water.
Upstream of Fond du Lac, at Jay Cooke State Park, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources took more than a year to rebuild a New Deal-era pedestrian bridge that provides access to roughly two-thirds of the park’s trails and other amenities.
The “swinging bridge,” built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1934, had flooded only once before, in 1950. The nearly 9,000-acre park closed for four months to repair damaged infrastructure. Today staffers offer tours to visitors who marvel at the dramatic landscape alterations caused by the 2012 flood.
“There are a fair amount of people who are still interested in what happened, and they want to see the damage,” park manager Gary Hoeft says. Geology buffs, in particular, are “slobbering over some of the holes in the ground, basically allowing you to see several hundred years of soil deposition.”
He added that park officials have been practicing some seat-of-the-pants decision making since re-opening in October 2012, but visitor numbers rebounded last summer and are expected to get even better as the swinging bridge reopens and other infrastructure is repaired.
“We’re still kind of reeling from it,” Hoeft said of the storm and its aftermath. “In 32 years with [the Minnesota DNR], I’ve never seen anything like it, and I hope not to have to see it again.”
Meanwhile, Duluth continues on its slow path to recovery. In February, the city received an additional $3.6 million in state aid to help restore upland waterways that were damaged by deep scouring during the 2012 flood, including hillsides surrounding Jay Cooke State Park.
The grant, from the Minnesota Board of Water and Soil Resources, increased total recovery spending on Duluth’s damaged waterways to about $6.8 million, or just over half of the total estimated damage.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency early this year committed $250,000 to support water quality and stormwater improvement projects for Duluth under its recently launched “Great Lakes Shoreline Cities” grant program. The EPA money will be matched by $250,000 provided by the State of Minnesota, the Duluth Economic Development Agency and the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.
Mayor Ness told the Duluth News Tribune that much of the new grant money will go toward improving "green infrastructure," including the planting of trees that stabilize stream banks and guard against mudslides. "It will be a living, breathing system," he said.