Newport braces, flood waters rising fast
Fast-rising flood waters are expected to come dangerously close to topping a deteriorating Newport levee next week, prompting officials in the small river city to declare a state of emergency Thursday in the wake of worsening Mississippi River flood forecasts.
A National Weather Service forecast released late Thursday afternoon predicted the river to rise above flood stage by Friday morning at St. Paul, and to crest next Wednesday almost 20 feet higher than normal.
Newport officials say that would place the river at 700 feet above sea level, at the top of the 800-foot-long, roughly 40-year-old earthen levee running along Cedar Lane that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has deemed unsafe.
"I'm going to anticipate it going over," said Bruce Hanson, Newport's public works director.
The National Weather Service also predicted the flood waters could remain at that level for weeks, increasing the chances, city officials say, that the weakened levee will finally give way.
The city has said it will not sandbag to fight back the flood because of liability concerns associated with gathering groups of employees and volunteers atop the aging levee.
The levee protects just more than a dozen homes, not a downtown area, city administrator Brian Anderson said. A large-scale sandbagging effort like the one that kept flood waters from topping the levee in 2001 could add dangerous amounts of weight to an already compromised dike, endangering lives to protect a relatively small number of properties, he said.
"There is a significant risk of catastrophic failure with volunteers on the levee," Anderson said.
Already Thursday evening, the river's rise was visible: the swollen Mississippi stood inches from spilling over the bank at a low-lying river overlook park at the end of 10th Street.
Around mid-day Thursday a massive amount of debris flowed down the river through Newport and under the Interstate 494 Wakota Bridge, Hanson said, carried by the flooded river from points north.
City engineer John Stewart said he expects the river to top the southern portion of the levee -- hastily constructed on private property after devastating floods in the 1960s -- in an area by 17th Street and Cedar Lane.
Newport will provide roughly 5,000 sandbags for residents near the levee to try to protect their homes. The sandbags will be dropped off at the old public works facility at 1101 5th Avenue as early as Friday, Hanson said.
Residents of the flood-prone area were angry Thursday with the city for not doing more. Washington County cities Afton and Newport are acting swiftly to protect property from rising St. Croix River waters -- why not Newport? residents asked.
Officials invited citizens impacted by the decision to uphold the 2004 decision to not sandbag the deteriorating levee to speak at Thursday's City Council meeting. But Mayor Tim Geraghty made clear the council was not going to change its course.
"I know a lot of people are upset with the council's action, or inaction," Geraghty said.
The city will act quickly, however, to protect a sanitary sewer lift station in the flood plain, and to shut off utilities to homes near the levee if the river spilling over the levee appears imminent, Hanson said.
Check swcbulletin.com for more on the 2010 floods.
Officials urge residents to call Newport Public Works to request sandbags. Call the department at (651) 459-2475.