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Mississippi River flooding endangers, destroys in years past

The Mississippi River flows through Aitkin and Crow Wing counties, historically providing a means to transport goods but also is used for outdoor recreation in more recent times. The Mighty Mississippi has also flooded in years past, causing headaches and destruction.

A vehicle parks near Boom Lake in Brainerd during the 1950 flood facing the former ski jump on the hill above near Kiwanis Park.
A vehicle parks near Boom Lake in Brainerd during the 1950 flood facing the former ski jump on the hill above near Kiwanis Park.
Contributed / Crow Wing County Historical Society
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BRAINERD — The Mississippi River, running through Brainerd and emptying into the Gulf of Mexico, has shown its might in past years by causing flooding in area communities.

The Mighty Mississippi is known to flood areas in Aitkin. The National Weather Service in Duluth recently issued flood warnings when the river overtook roads in that city.

“We had some flooding on the Mississippi River. This was after heavy rainfall that fell in the middle portion of May that pushed the river levels up,” said Bryan Howell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

This year, the river peaked at 15.2 feet in Aitkin, according to the river gauge along 410th Avenue where the road crosses the river just north of town, Howell said.

“There's a boat ramp at the city park that starts to flood out and then there are a few homes that are around 15 feet in the Cedarbrook neighborhood that become surrounded by water,” Howell said. “It’s really more of a nuisance flooding, from what we understand.”

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SUV drives in Aitkin flooding
An SUV drives out of 334th Lane near Long Lake southeast of Aitkin in 2016. The road, the only way for several residents to access their property, was severely flooded following heavy rains.
Zach Kayser / Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Minor flood stage in Aitkin is 13 feet, with 15 feet marking the moderate flood stage level.

“Historically speaking, this (year) isn't gonna end up in the top five,” Howell said.

According to Howell, the record for Mississippi River flooding in Aitkin was 22.49 feet in May 1950.

“Looking at some of the impacts that we have at that point, at 20.5 feet portions of U.S. Highway 169 northeast of town along the river become impassable. The water goes up over the road,” he said. “And then it looks like at 21 feet the power plant in town needs emergency protection.”

Aitkin is not the only community, however, threatened by high waters. In the history of the Brainerd lakes area, the destructive force of the river was felt in 1950. The Mississippi overflowed the road between Boom Lake and the river and covered most of the nearby flats.

“Crews began building a dike at the power and pumping station. By May 12, the dam’s superstructure, usually extending about 6 feet above the water at normal stage, gave way to the pressure of water and debris piling up behind it,” according to local historian Ann M. Nelson.

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Nelson wrote about the flood of 1950 for the Crow Wing County Historical Society in her 2016 article “A Brief History of Early Northeast Brainerd.”

“Sandbags, piled 6 feet high, were positioned on each side of the dam; the river was about 5 feet above flood stage. Fortunately, the dikes at the dam and pump house held. Meanwhile, water was covering the road near the cemetery and seeping onto the football field at Franklin school,” Nelson wrote.

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A new concrete dam was built and two 85-foot gates that were 7 feet tall were installed in March 1951.

“The Mississippi usually goes up every spring with snowmelt and spring runoff,” Howell said. “Usually, it stays in minor or moderate flood stage. We don't really start seeing a lot of problems until it gets closer to 17 feet.”

The last time the rising river caused a significant impact in Aitkin was July 2016, when local officials declared a state of emergency following torrential rains and flash flooding. Authorities evacuated four campgrounds along the Mississippi and Ripple rivers and a section of County Highway 4 near Highway 65 southeast of Aitkin was washed out.

FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com . Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL .

I cover arts and entertainment, and write feature stories, for the Brainerd Dispatch newspaper. As a professional journalist with years of experience, I have won awards for my fact-based reporting. And my articles have also appeared in other publications, including USA Today. 📰
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