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After floods, Kabetogama, Rainy Lake residents start to rebuild, repair

St. Louis County's flood response is moving into “recovery mode."

High water levels in Ranier
Tara's Wharf is surrounded by slowly receding water from Rainy Lake on Tuesday.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune
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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.”

Water levels are slowly dropping at Sandy Point Lodge and Resort
As seen on Tuesday, the water levels have pulled back from Sandy Point Lodge and Resort, leaving behind damaged docks and cabins on Lake Kabetogama.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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.

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The Rainy River watershed is overflowing from Lake Vermilion to Lake of the Woods, with flood records possible.

The docks that were damaged by flooding at Sandy Point Lodge and Resort
Sandy Point Lodge and Resort's docks damaged by flooding on Lake Kabetogama.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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.

A stray dock lies on the shores of Sandy Point Lodge and Resort
In the aftermath of the flood, a dock of unknown origin appeared on the shore of Sandy Point Lodge and Resort.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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.

Woman and dog standing next to the damaged docks
A visitor and a dog in front of the docks that have been damaged by flooding.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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.

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Resort co-owner surveys the flood aftermath
Sandy Point Lodge and Resort co-owner Tanner Steinlicht explains how sandbagging efforts kept the water at bay.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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 forecast calls for a mostly dry period as waterfront properties remain flooded.

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.

Resort visitors head out on the water
Customers of Sandy Point Lodge and Resort prepared to set off on their boat.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Rising optimism

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.

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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

Piles of sandbags sit where the water levels once reached
As seen on Tuesday, the remains of sandbags where the flood waters had previously reached in Ranier.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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.

Piles of sandbags sit where the water levels once reached
As seen on Tuesday, the remains of sandbags where the flood waters had previously reached in Ranier.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

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.”

Building surrounded by sandbags and water
As seen on Tuesday, the ice cream shop at Tara's Wharf is surrounded by walls of sandbags and water that broke through in Ranier.
Wyatt Buckner / Duluth News Tribune

Joe Bowen is an award-winning reporter at the Duluth News Tribune. He covers schools and education across the Northland.

You can reach him at:
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