COTTAGE GROVE -  Sharon Marcotte cast a weary and wary gaze toward the swollen Mississippi River as it hurtled past her Cottage Grove home. She's lived in the low-lying, flood-prone River Acres neighborhood for nearly 30 years.

"It's supposed to crest next week, then there might be a second crest in April when the (ice melt ) washes down from the north," she said. "I'll worry until it starts going down."

March 23, a volunteer brigade from All Saints Lutheran Church helped Marcotte to build a sandbag levee in her backyard.  A large pile of sand, delivered by the city, lay in her driveway. Shovel-wielding church members filled bags, assisted by students from the Park High School boys lacrosse team.

"It's pretty labor intensive," Marcotte said, taking a breather after pushing a bag-laden wheelbarrow down and around to the back, where volunteers Don McCalvy and Dave Bondeson were on stacking detail.

Emergency declaration

 The potential for severe flooding prompted Cottage Grove City Council to declare a state of emergency last week. 

It sounds dramatic, but it’s more of a just-in-case scenario, Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey said.

“We want to make sure we have all of the capabilities at our disposal to keep Cottage Grove safe, specifically those areas that are going to be prone to flooding,” he said.  

Two primary areas of concern are riverfront homes at River Acres and two low-lying roads on Grey Cloud Island.

Residents of those communities attended a city flood preparation presentation March 21 at City Hall. 

Two roads connect Grey Cloud Island with the mainland - the causeway on County Highway 75 and 103rd Street, which is straddled by the Iron Bridge. Should flood waters submerge them, Police and EMS would be "severely limited'" in their ability to respond to a fire or medical emergency, deputy director of public safety Gwen Martin said. 

"We don't have a boat," she said. "If you can't get off the island, we can't get on the island."

Martin, a police captain, said they can't force Grey Cloud residents to evacuate but urged them to make plans to stay with friends or relatives. She suggested that residents sign up for CodeRED, the city’s emergency notification system at https://public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/5BD6DBCB2457.

An “added uncertainty”

For the first time, logjams could be a major headache.  

New culverts on the Grey Cloud Island causeway are an "added uncertainty," since Cottage Grove officials aren't sure how much debris will wash downstream, Martin told the audience. 

Last year, crews rebuilt the bridge on County Highway 75 and replaced an earthen dam under the road with culverts. While that eliminated the stagnant “slough” by allowing water to flow freely for the first time in decades, it will also funnel debris  to Cottage Grove.

The Iron Bridge above 103rd Street is a potential pinch point. Large trees and other flotsam could pile up against the structure. As a “fracture critical” bridge, failure of one part could cause the entire structure to collapse. That kind of threat could necessitate the closing the bridge even before waters rise. 

“We’ve never had a flood where big pieces of debris could wedge up against that iron bridge,” Bailey said prior to the presentation.

A flood warning remains in effect for Dakota, Ramsey and Washington counties from the Mississippi River at St. Paul. The Mississippi River at St. Paul is approaching its minor flood stage of 14 feet. It could reach reach 19 feet March 28, according to the National Weather Service.  A flood warning remains for Dakota and Washington counties as well as for Pierce County in Wisconsin from the Mississippi River..

Washington County emergency response teams are ready to assist, Washington County emergency director Doug Bergland said. He noted that some river crest estimates have been revised downward thanks in part to a stretch of dry weather.

The emergency declaration means the city can request state and federal aid and recover some of the costs of flood mitigation, Bailey said. It also streamlines the city’s ability to bring in bulldozers or hire workers with a single phone call, rather than waiting for approval from the City Council. 

“It could be fast-tracked. We don’t have to go through the normal cadence which could be months,” Bailey said recently. “This time it can take hours.”

What else you should know:

  • Red Cross representative Jill Hallonquist told the audience that they're in touch with area churches who have offered to serve as shelters for evacuees. She said they couldn't provide specific locations yet because "If things change, we don't want you standing outside of a locked building."
  • The city will provide sand, sandbags and plastic sheets to residents upon request.
  • The Minnesota Department of Health will deliver a dumpster to River Acres. Residents can use it to dispose of pesticides, paints and other household hazardous waste so that flood waters don't carry them into waterways and sewers.
  • A representative from Xcel Energy said they didn't expect water to threaten transformers, and that some individual outages could occur. Customers will be notified in person, he said. 

For more information, visit www.cottagegrovemn.gov and click "Flood Updates."