Hope and uncertainty in a battered hometown

Reflections on the Duluth flooding by MN350 member Scott Travis.

It’s awful tough to see the battering my hometown of Duluth took, but it’s worse to know that this time Nature was spurred on by the climate damage we’ve foolishly caused. I’m mighty proud of Duluth’s response to this mess: no fatalities, only minor injuries, no looting and people taking care of each other as best they can. Except for how much I missed my wife Tara and baby daughter Lila, I didn’t want to come back south to Minneapolis; and I couldn’t anyway until I-35 reopened last Friday. Instead I had time to stay and help out with my parents, sister, and neighbors; and to get a look at what the storm and flood did.

I went up to Duluth last Tuesday AM with my sister Maggie to visit my Dad who’d had a knee replaced the prior week. I planned to be back in Minneapolis on Wednesday night but my stay got extended once we learned of all the road closures. We got up there fine on Tues and spent time with my folks at Lakeshore Rehab in East Duluth for the afternoon, but the storm started that night as we were driving to sleep at our house way out in the Riverside neighborhood in west Duluth, where I grew up. It rained hard all night and we slept through the worst. Our neighborhood is on the hillside above the St Louis River and the nearest creeks are far enough away that their flooding didn’t reach us. Our house got some water in the basement but we handled it with towels and a dehumidifier. My Dad’s rehab center was also undamaged. The city of Duluth is built around countless creeks that usually tumble beautifully down the hills through the neighborhoods and parks, but they all exploded over their banks early Wednesday morning.

Climate Change Impacts

After hearing the early news of the scare at the zoo and warnings of sinkholes, I called the Lake Superior Zooto see if they were ready for volunteer help since we were close by. They weren’t ready yet so my sister and I went out on foot up into the hills up to hike eastward on the Superior Hiking Trail. We found water pouring through the woods everywhere in wide sheets, cutting new creeks, and ripping up culverts and bridge piers and road crossings. After awhile we came to Knowlton Creek which, as we used to know it, ran through an 8′ dia. culvert buried about 100′ deep under a service road just east of Spirit Mountain’s ski runs. But we saw a new 400′ wide canyon where the road used to be that cut all the way down 100′ or so to the culvert below that was scrubbed clean and bare, end to end. All that earth that once held up the road was blown downstream, nearby trees were peeled of their bark and branches, and all the rest of the bushes and plants on the forest floor were now flattened into the mud. It looked like a bomb blast.

At times if felt like there were gaping wounds all around us in the woods, and the question in mind was whether now we can distinguish the damage done by Nature herself from the damage done by the artificial forces we’ve accidentally released. All the while there though, the vitality of everything natural around us felt magnified and animated. Wildlife was busy, and it seemed that every green thing was opening to us and the air and sun. It was a time to reckon with all that lush, green beauty along with real terror of the question: “What have we done?” Nature was doing its work and showing it’s actual reality and power. It was a shot in the arm.

Hiking home, we saw plenty of cars out driving the roads so we got the nerve to drive to visit my Dad across town late in the day. ThaMinnesota Climate Change Impactst trip went fine except for dodging sharp scattered gravel in places, pools of mud, and damaged pavement on the roads. Near the end we came to one closed road near my Dad’s building, so we had to walk the final couple blocks. We made sure to follow other vehicles all the way there to let them find the soft spots in the streets before us.

The next morning we went out on bikes to check the Munger and Western Waterfront Trails which are both popular recreation trails that pass within blocks of my family’s house. Both were heavily damaged by subsidence here and there, and at creek crossings by culvert blow-outs and erosion. Eventually we came to the new mouth of Knowlton Creek where it pours into the St Louis River. It had ripped out and pitched its final culvert about 200′ downstream where the 8′ dia, 80′ long piece of corrugated steel sat blocking our bike path. Above where it used to be was a 100′ long stretch of railroad tracks, with ties still attached, just drooping there in mid-air, since all the gravel and earth below had disappeared. All around us down there were torn-up trees and roots, lumber and trash. It’s all another huge mess alongside the rest around the world underway or behind us now that all join Earth’s growing warning to us to find the fix for the climate and energy crises. It’s now or never.

Photo Slideshow from Duluth Resident: Duluth Flood Summer Solstice June 20, 2012
Other Articles:
Did climate change “juice” Duluth flood? “Runoff cloud” visible from space, Paul Huttner, MPR
Will climate change influence Duluth’s rebuilding plans?, The Daily Circuit – MPR