After floods, Kabetogama, Rainy Lake residents start to rebuild, repair
St. Louis County's flood response is moving into “recovery mode."
KABETOGAMA, Minnesota — About 30 feet separates a line of damp sandbags from the edge of swollen Lake Kabetogama at the Sandy Point Lodge in northern Minnesota.
The lake crested about 4 inches from the top of the hip-height barrier as the Rainy Lake Basin flooded to record levels, damaging homes and threatening livelihoods as it did. Now, with the worst presumably behind them, residents and business owners are working to rebuild and repair.
“We’ve always kept an optimistic feel and approach about it," Tanner Steinlicht, one of the lodge's four owners, said Tuesday. He estimated it could cost as much as $800,000 to repair all the damage the floodwaters caused. Steinlicht, his wife, and in-laws bought the lodge May 20 while the lake was still encroaching upon it.
“We knew what we were getting into, for the most part, when we were buying it,” Steinlicht said. “We knew there were going to be a lot of ups and downs. It’s just a lot of the things that we were planning on doing when we took over on May 20 have all gotten pushed off.”
Despite hours of sometimes-desperate sandbagging — with help from a team of volunteers and the Minnesota National Guard — and a quartet of pumps depositing water back into the lake from behind a leaking part of the wall near the lodge itself, five of the business' 11 guest cabins were damaged in the flood. Water rose to about shin height in four of them, and a fifth was unmoored from its foundation. Lake water also damaged the foundation of the resort’s sauna and about half of the dock at the once-submerged marina.
Bistodeau and Steinlicht hired contractors to dry out and clean up the then-waterlogged cabins. Cabin 7, though, was still out of commission Tuesday. Surviving appliances and furniture there were stacked on cinder blocks, and several fans circulated air throughout it.
"Everything was floating,” said Al Bistodeau, another of the lodge’s owners, of the cabin.
He and Steinlicht aren’t sure who owns the dock that washed up on their resort, deposited there by the unprecedentedly high water levels. They tied it to some trees near the shore to keep it from floating away again and causing damage elsewhere. And Bistodeau headed out Wednesday to recover one of the resort’s picnic tables from a neighbor on the lake.
The preceding Fourth of July holiday weekend was the first since late May during which Sandy Point was formally open for guests. On a mostly sunny Tuesday afternoon, a family motored a fishing boat out of the marina toward the middle of the lake, while another in matching shirts posed for photos near the shore.
St. Louis County’s flood response has shifted to “recovery mode,” according to Dewey Johnson, its emergency operations manager.
That means recovering mountains of sandbags the county sent to beleaguered residents, plus township, county and even federal government workers filing for reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for their work thus far.
Private businesses and property owners, Johnson explained, need to demonstrate a 40% loss in value to get similar federal compensation.
Rainy Lake Basin slowly drains
Lake Kabetogama has fallen 48 inches since it peaked May 31, according to staff at the National Weather Service . The lake drains westward into Rainy Lake in adjacent Koochiching County. That lake, in turn, drains into the Rainy River and Lake of the Woods, and then eventually into Canada and Hudson Bay.
Water is receding on Rainy Lake, too, but it’s still 4 inches higher than a previous record set in 2014. Weather service staff predict the lake will decline by about a foot this week and that it might return to “normal” summertime levels by August.
The weather service on July 4 removed its flood warning for Kabetogama and Namakan lakes, but kept one in place for Rainy. Weather service staff expect conditions in the region to remain dry for most of the work week, but ultimately predict parts of the region to receive as much as an inch of rain by July 11.
Future rainfall could “pause” falling lake levels, according to weather service staff, and widespread flooding and impacts to property and infrastructure near Rainy will likely continue for the next few weeks.
Near the mouth of the Rainy River is the Rainy Lake Inn at Tara's Wharf in Ranier, a combination inn and seasonal ice cream shop that flooded this spring, too, despite the hillocks of sandbags deployed along its perimeter. Floodwaters, owner Tara Nelson explained, came up underneath the business, swamping the ice cream shop and threatening to do the same to an adjacent guest room.
Just beyond her wharf is a public dock that’s still underwater. The only indication it’s there are the top half of a lighthouse installed at the end and a few sets of plastic containers, weighted by water, that anchor the dock in place.
A nearby bar owner raised $384 during a holiday weekend concert for Nelson’s wharf, but she gently shook her head when asked how much she expected repairs to cost.
“Fortunately, my losses are not so great that I cannot manage them,” Nelson said, “and we still have
some of the summer season to make the most of guests that want to come in and customers that want to eat ice cream.”
For the moment, Nelson plans to turn one of the wharf’s guest spaces into an impromptu ice cream shop and is considering turning the still-muddy shop that sits near the water into a breakfast nook room of some variety. The shop is still closed and, during a 40-minute interview with the News Tribune, two pairs of kids biked away dejectedly after learning as much and Nelson had to break the same news to a would-be customer who called to ask if the shop was open.
“We’re working hard to get an ice cream shop open for all those people who want ice cream,” Nelson told the caller. “Thanks for checking in with me.”
She estimated she gets about 10 calls like that each day.
Now that the water is finally beginning to recede, Nelson said she’s starting to feel optimistic. She pointed to a line of sand and dirt near the top of the boat launch that marks the extent of the water’s rise. It was about 25 feet from the edge of the lake as of July 5. Just beyond that mark is a mound of sandbags that Nelson didn’t have to add to the line of them closer to the water.
She hopes to reopen her ice cream shop in the now-former guest room by Friday, July 8.
“It always helps when the sun shines because it makes you feel lighter and fuller,” she said. “Like you’re accomplishing things.”