Too much, too fast.
That’s how Ted Brokaw described the situation that caused International Falls streets to flood and city staff to work until 1 a.m. Thursday.
“The system is not designed for that,” the city’s street and water commissioner said Thursday morning.
“When you get that much that fast, it’s impossible to have a sewer system big enough to handle everything,” he said. “People need to give it time.”
The storm sewer drains are not plugged nor defective, he said, noting Thursday morning six workers were cleaning catch basins in case more rain would come.
He used the analogy of a bathtub draining: The entire bottom of a bathtub would need to drop out if it were to be drained immediately. In contrast, pulling the plug will take more time to drain the bathtub.
Mayor Bob Anderson also said the storm sewers worked properly through the deluge.
“That’s why the streets have curbs: To store water on the street. The curbs are four to five inches so they can store a fair amount until the storm sewers can handle it and discharge it to the river,” Anderson said.
No wake area
Brokaw also urged people to be more respectful when driving through flooded streets.
“They make it 10 times worse, and they think it’s funny,” he said.
Instead, the wakes left by vehicles speeding through the water can cause damage to nearby property.
Shelly Morin, owner of International Falls Farm and Garden located on Second Avenue, said there was about 6 inches of water in the store that caused more than $3,000 worth of damage.
“I have to throw everything out that got wet,” Morin said. “We have it up on pallets, but the water came over those.”
The business owner said when cars would drive by at excessive speeds, the wake would send water over merchandise sitting on pallets that were double stacked. She was frustrated people wouldn’t slow down as they drove by.
“My husband was standing in the middle of the road trying to slow people down,” she said. “It didn’t help.”
A few blocks down at the Elks Lodge 1599, water was coming into the basement, and employees said it would get worse as cars drive by.
Koochiching County Emergency Management Coordinator Willi Kostiuk also discourages people from driving through the flooded streets.
Kostiuk was still assessing damage Thursday morning, but he said county dispatchers at the Koochiching County Law Enforcement Center were receiving reports of vehicles on streets causing waves and sending water in gushes through basement windows.
Brokaw reminded city property owners to be sure their sump pumps are not tied into the sanitary sewer, and instead need to pump water from basements outside.
He said he had a few calls about basements flooding during the evening storm.
“If you’re having issues with water when it rains like that, look at your footing drains to see if they are tied into the sanitary sewer,” he said.
Brokaw said the city’s sanitary sewer had high levels, was sounding alarms, and was on the edge of a discharge, but did not. Instead, the system was maintained and did not discharge into the river.
“Another half hour and we would have been in trouble,” he said of the sanitary sewer system.
City crews worked through the night, he said. “They did good,” he added.
International Falls received a total of 2.21 inches of rain from about 7-10 p.m., during Wednesday’s event, according to a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Duluth.
Steve Gohde, observing program leader, said with the hot weather lately, severe storms easily form.
“We did send out tornado warnings for Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park,” he said. “There are a lot of vulnerable people out there.”
Tornadoes in the Littlefork area were also reported, and Gohde said teams were on site Thursday assessing damage to determine if a tornado touched down.
“When we work to establish if there was a touch down, we try to pick out the point it started and find the path, and the width of any path,” he said. “We also look for damage that would be indicative of rotation... There are a lot of different clues we can look at to see if it was a tornado or straight-line winds.”
Bleachers at the fairgrounds in Littlefork sustained damage in the storm just days after the 98th annual Northern Minnesota District Fair ended Sunday.
International Falls Police Chief Rich Mastin and Koochiching County Sheriff Perryn Hedlund both told The Journal Thursday morning that there were no reports of injuries or major damage during Wednesday’s event.
“(There were) a few reports of downed trees and a couple of trees on power lines, but nothing out of the ordinary for a strong storm,” Hedlund said.
International Falls firefighters were turned around Wednesday night as they responded to a call that a tree had fallen on a power line and caught fire on County Road 98 south, near Ericsburg. A department spokesperson said the deluge of rain did a good job of putting out the fire before they arrived.
Hedlund added the county’s dispatch center had a busy night fielding calls throughout the storm and pushing alerts out to the public and responding units out in the field.
“They did an excellent job keeping everyone informed as they monitored the storms throughout the night,” he said. “I am very proud of the work they did during this event. They are a great asset to our community and the sheriff’s office and oftentimes get no recognition for the work they do.”
Kostiuk said shelters, especially for people living in trailer courts, were available had the tornado concern come closer to International Falls.
And he said the county made use of the Everbridge mass notification system, which provided as early warning as possible to people as the storm moved from Itasca into Koochiching County and toward Big Falls and Littlefork.
That warning could get even better when the county completes training and installation of a new system that would allow for notification of all cell phones in the area, not just those that belong to people who have signed up for the Everbridge system.
With changes in the climate, Kostiuk said storms like Wednesday’s are expected to become more frequent and more severe.
“We have plans in place, but we need to make people aware of them and that this is going to increase, not get less. These kinds of storms will be more frequent,” he said.