Lessons from the 2012 flood: Five years later, is Northland better prepared for next natural disaster?
DULUTH — Monday, June 19, marks the fifth anniversary of the 2012 flood that dumped 7.5 to 10 inches of rain on top of the Northland's already-sodden landscape — enough to force waterways out of their banks and cause widespread damage.
The recovery efforts continue even now, as crews work to stabilize local creeks, rebuild washed-out portions of Minnesota Highway 210 and gird the Thomson dam facility in anticipation of future floods.
Despite all the work and money that has been poured into the flood recovery, one fundamental question remains: Have we done enough and learned enough to come through a similar event in better shape?
Jim Benning, Duluth's director of public works and utilities, offered a qualified yes to that question, saying: "I think we would fare better, but we wouldn't emerge unscathed."
Duane Hill, district engineer for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, concurred.
"If we had another event like that, we'd still have catastrophic damage somewhere. With the terrain that we have, we're going to have damage, because that was beyond the kind of storm that we design for," he said.
But in light of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, design standards have grown more rigorous.
"In many places, especially where we know we have steep terrain, we're designing our culverts and bridges to withstand bigger rains," Hill said.
"What used to be a 100-year event now is more like a 50-year occurrence, based on the probability of having that much rainfall," he said.
Jim Foldesi, St. Louis County's director of public works, attested to higher standards guiding repairs as well.
"The reality is that yes, we are better positioned now. If we were to get a similar event today, our infrastructure would stand up to that situation better. It's more resilient and better designed," he said.
Don Ness, who was mayor of Duluth when the flood occurred, said funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency only went so far to reduce the risk of future flooding, however.
"From an infrastructure standpoint, I think it's a mixed bag," he said. "There were certainly improvements and modernizations made to the infrastructure, but unfortunately, because of the way FEMA looks at these types of projects, there was funding to replace the infrastructure, as it existed prior to the storm. And in some cases the city had to use our own limited resources to build in more capacity. In other cases, we rebuilt to the same extent."
To slow the flow
Ness said more needs to be done to improve water retention in upland areas to protect Duluth against future floods.
"In the past, the top of the hill acted like a giant sponge, and we've built a ton of parking lots on that swampy land, and the resulting runoff overwhelmed the infrastructure that was built 120 years ago, prior to that development," he said.
Ness suggested that Duluth must now work to atone for those past sins.
"The development of the past was guided by how can we do this as cheaply as possible, and I think we've seen that the unfortunate effect of that is that ... there was massive public expense that resulted in part because of cost-cutting and trying to build as cheaply as possible in the past," he said.
Benning said the city has taken steps to handle increased runoff.
"Where we could, we upsized culverts and pipes to improve the capacity — probably not to the point of a 500-year storm, but bigger than they were previously," he said.
In the wake of the flood, Benning said the city also has worked to armor stream and river banks to prevent erosion. It also has improved ditches to reduce the risk of water overtopping roadways.
Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of public administration, said the city can ill afford to write off the 2012 flood as a freak event.
"I think we're proceeding simply with the realization that if it happened once, it can happen again, and we need to plan and design and maintain our spaces to bear up well through those events whenever they come and however frequently they come," he said.
With the help of federal and state funding, Duluth bought out and removed 22 of the community's worst-damaged homes following the flood.
The city also took a hard look at the Lake Superior Zoo, where Kingsbury Creek, the stream that usually flows gently through the center of the zoo turned into a deadly torrent on June 20, 2012, killing 11 of the 12 animals in the zoo's barnyard exhibit, as well as three birds: a snowy owl, a raven and a turkey vulture.
The flooded creek left the zoo's most popular exhibit, Polar Shores, 14 feet underwater, leading to the temporary escape of a polar bear named Berlin, as well as two seals — Feisty and Vivian — who were found beyond the zoo's fenceline.
While the city continues to seek state support to revamp the zoo, Filby Williams said a detailed plan for how best to reconfigure the facility has been developed.
"The plan that the city and the zoological society conceived together and each strongly supports removes animals altogether from the floodplain, and that was very much by design, looking at the 100- and 500-year flood plain lines," he said.
In addition to moving animal exhibits back from Kingsbury, Filby Williams said crews addressed "a double bottleneck" in the creek to ensure that water won't back up into the zoo as it did in 2012.
"The replacement of Grand Avenue culvert and the BN rail culvert downstream on Kingsbury Creek with bridges dramatically lowered the floodplain within the zoo. Formerly, it was like a big bathtub with a very small drain," he said.
Although the Thomson dam withstood the 2012 flood, the structure was tested, and its hydropower station was badly damaged, knocking it out of commission for more than two years.
Chris Rousseau, Minnesota Power's manager of hydro operations, said his company expects to spend about $100 million to repair and upgrade the Thomson facility.
"We have made significant investments in Thomson to strengthen and harden it for these extreme types of events moving forward," he said.
Much of the work has been completed, but Rousseau said construction of additional emergency concrete overflow spillways will continue through the summer of 2018.
"The spill capacity that we're working on adding this summer will take us up to 60,000 cubic feet per second," Rousseau said, noting that the improved facility should be able to hand about 20 percent more flow than it experienced during the 2012 flood.
Amy Rutledge, a communications manager for Minnesota Power, said: "We can't predict the absolute worst perhaps, but certainly with the lessons learned from the great flood, we were able to plan and make improvements to our system."
Ness said he was impressed by the way Duluth and the county responded to the 2012 flood.
"Of course it was a devastating and destructive storm, but I do think there is another part of the story, and that's about a community rallying and supporting one another and demonstrating with great success our ability to overcome the greatest natural disaster that the city has ever seen," he said.
Holly Sampson, president of the Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, said the experience has led to greater cooperation and a commitment to be ready to meet future challenges if and when they arise.
"We will be much better prepared, and one of the reasons that we'll be better prepared is that we're now working on what's called a whole-community planning process," she said.
"We're pulling together representatives from many different sectors of the community so that we can support the work that the emergency management people in the public sector are really taking on when we face another disaster of the magnitude of the 2012 flood or even the windstorm that we had last summer," Sampson said.
Dewey Johnson, St. Louis County's emergency management coordinator, believes the flood response led to increased interagency collaboration.
"The flood of 2012 just made us realize how much more we need to be prepared for these kinds of things," he said, noting that the city and county have since trained to jointly coordinate response efforts through emergency operations centers
"It's an all-hazards approach, whether it's a flu epidemic or it's a tornado or a terrorist attack or a bombing or an active shooter," Johnson said, noting that the coordinated approach worked well when a destructive windstorm swept through the Northland last summer.
"Everyone commented on how much better the response to that storm went, and I think it's attributable to the lessons we learned from the flood of 2012. So are we there yet? No. But we have made a lot of strides to make things better," he said.
Duluth Deputy Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj, who doubles as an emergency manager for the city, attested to the value of training as a team.
"After 9/11 there was a lot of grant money out there and opportunities to buy equipment, but we've actually realized that training is the key piece. You can buy all the stuff you want, but that doesn't save lives, and it doesn't save property. It doesn't really do anything if people aren't trained to use it right," he said.
"Everybody's really good at what they do. But you don't always see how the puzzle pieces fit together," said Krizaj, noting that's where the value of joint training shines through.
"I think it has really helped us see the big picture a little bit more," he said.