The aftermath of extreme weather

IMAGE: Derek Montgomery for MPR

That is not the result of an earthquake. Instead, this is what happens when a city receives as much as 10 inches of rain in three days. Over the last two days, flash flooding ripped apart Duluth—and other cities in Northeast Minnesota/Northwest Wisconsin. The damage in Duluth alone is expected to be in the millions. There will be street repairs, sewer line replacements, damage to private homes and businesses. The photos are devastating. Luckily, it seems that nobody died, but my heart goes out to everyone dealing with the aftermath of these storms.

At Minnesota Public Radio's Updraft blog, Paul Huttner explains how Duluth, a city built on a hillside and not near any big rivers, can end up with flooding this intense.

A cold front approached Minnesota from the High Plains on Sunday, June 17th and this front set off numerous thunderstorms through the evening. Duluth NWS received nearly an inch of rain (0.71"). The rains that fell on Sunday had inundated the soil, and created more saturated conditions than normal, which primed the Duluth area for runoff in the extreme rain event that we received

Meanwhile, 1/3 of the state of Minnesota is under drought conditions.

In pre-response to the inevitable climate change discussion, let me just remind you of meteorologist Paul Douglas' brilliant analogy:

You can’t point to any one weather extreme and say “that’s climate change”. But a warmer atmosphere loads the dice, increasing the potential for historic spikes in temperature and more frequent and bizarre weather extremes. You can’t prove that any one of Barry Bond’s 762 home runs was sparked by (alleged) steroid use. But it did increase his “base state,” raising the overall odds of hitting a home run.

See more photos from Duluth, including the soon-to-be-classic shot of an escaped zoo seal wandering the streets of downtown.

Read Paul Huttner's Updraft blog

Read an earlier post about Paul Douglas and his thoughts on climate change.


  1. I get the climate thing change, but I think the analogy is week. What people who dispute climate change take exception to is “a warmer atmosphere loads the dice.” No one disputes that steroids raise the base state.

    (And then they throw out the evidence for a warmer atmosphere, and then dispute the cause of this nonexistent warmer atmosphere that doesn’t cause the extreme weather that we’re not having. Honestly, I don’t know what you can do with that.)

    I think there is room for reasoned debate on climate change (how much should be attributed to human activity? how self-correcting are biosphereic systems? how fast are changes occurring? what methodologies are weak or could be improved? how can better modelling be performed?). But I don’t see those debates happening.

    1. I personally think there is no more room for reasoned debates, not as far as the public is concerned. The problem is we’re past the time where serious action should be taken, and all of this dithering about how much is human-caused versus not is not relevant for changing what we’re doing.

      It’s now time for leaders to convince everyone this is real, that we’ve got to stop pouring gasoline on the fire regardless of how it started.

      Just like with Fukushima, the scientists want to be very methodical and proper and wait until the evidence is in before recognizing the disaster, but that’s too slow when dealing with the effects on human societies. Which is the greater harm, assuming worst-case and acting accordingly or doing nothing until there’s enough evidence?

      Look at the tens of millions being spent on fighting unprecedented wildfires and flooding, or the costs because of drought. There’s billions to be made on the “war on climate”, it could be as profitable as the war on drugs or war on terror.

    2. The reasoned debate on climate change started about 160 years ago. It continues to this day in the journals and web fora of climatologists. Nobody else is having this debate. Nobody else is interested in a debate. The deniers don’t want a debate. They want the equivalent of a dormitory stereo war, and thanks to their funding sources, they are sure to win. Bitchin’ speakers, awesome amps, dude. And as for the global warming activists, they want to get stuff done, not get bogged with rehashing a debate the scientists finished with a decade ago. 

  2. The cones are there for a reason. Not much supporting the road surface there. Notice the guys standing inside the cones? Just a few steps further…

    1.  The poor sods there likely own the car in the hole.  “Well, if we can get it out, it’s probably still drivable… Shit, how are we gonna do that.”

  3. But I don’t see those debates happening.

    I suspect that’s the point.  The folks running the anti-AGW propaganda campaigns and presumably some of the people running the “OMG WE’RE GONNA DIE” campaigns don’t want better scientific conclusions.  They want the question to be as muddy and impenetrable as possible.

    My take is that the anti-AGW stuff tends to either try to undermine proven methodologies or to misrepresent the methodologies so that they sound silly to a person with little specific knowledge of climate science.  Again, that may be true for some of the alarmism as well.  Generally, any person or group motivated by something other than the scientific facts of the matter probably aren’t particularly interested in improving the science or the public’s understanding of it.

    Unfortunately we’re at the point that even cautious, understated predictions of climate change are dismissed as alarmism, or even worse legislated out of consideration (see recent events in NC and VA, USA).

    1. people running the “OMG WE’RE GONNA DIE” campaigns

      Who are these people and where can these campaigns be found?  I honestly haven’t seen this.  If you’re counting The Day After Tomorrow, then well… that’s just a movie, not a documentary.

      What I have seen is many people having to tip-toe carefully around sober facts because conservative idiots start having hissy fits otherwise.

      1. What I have seen is many people having to tip-toe carefully around sober facts because conservative idiots start having hissy fits otherwise.

        Then you already understand the motivation behind my concessions about the views of hypothetical AGW alarmists. ;)

        I haven’t seen “An Inconvenient Truth” or assessed the claims therein; for all I know it’s 100% consistent with the scientific evidence at the time. But since I can’t vouchfor it (and a lot of similar films and books) I’m conceding the possibility of alarmism that ignores the scientific evidence. I know, I know, false equivalency sux. But dialectic works better than shouting as loud as you can that the other person is wrong, wrong, wrong — something I am just recently coming to realize.

        Ultimately, I think it’s moot. Actually doing anything about it would require a massive overhaul of infrastructure that would itself require massive use of fossil fuels. The people who believe in AGW but don’t realize that such an overhaul is needed — the sorts of people who think that if everyone bought a Prius and stocked up on CFLs the problem would be solved — don’t understand the actual scope of the problem and would likely dig their heels in almost as much as conservative skeptics of AGW if you tried explaining it to them. Convincing all the skeptics and half-hearted believers that they need to sacrifice some of what they’ve been calling “quality of life” for the sake of the future of the human race doesn’t seem viable. So convincing people it’s happening doesn’t seem as important to me any more. It’s going to happen. The question is just how we deal with it at this point.

        1. It’s not about whether it happens – as you say, it’s inevitable now.  It’s about how badly it happens.  Mitigation measures count. The more energy-efficiency we manage, the more the problem is “massive disruption” as opposed to “5 degree rise, everyone dies in global flood”.

      2. What I have seen is many people having to tip-toe carefully around sober facts because conservative idiots start having hissy fits otherwise.

        Last year, my corner of Illinois got that much rain in that short of a period, and this year we’ve gotten about two inches in the last three months, after a good chunk of one of our towns was wiped out by an EF5 tornado.  Yet, you wouldn’t want to be so foolish as to suggest that mankind had anything to do with the weather extremes, not unless you want to hear a lot of snark about Al Gore and Obama.

        Oh, and some of the streets in Cairo, IL have looked like that for a year now.

        1. I’m very sorry that you and your community are going through this.

          It really does seem that many conservatives sleep well at night because they have no idea the destruction and torment they cause others through their ignorance and general stupidity.

          We’re all to blame for not acting on the evidence a long time ago, but let’s face it, the conservatives (republicans, libertarians and bluedog democrats) have been the ignorant roadblocks to even just getting started on sane energy policy.

          We should have had a “Manhattan Project”-style project for more sustainable energy years ago.  But, I’m sure the conservatives would block that initiative even to this day.

          Our only hope is to vote them all out of power as soon as possible.  Or, at least those of us who can see what’s going on try to do so.

  4. The guy in the middle of the above pic – did his real pants wash into Lake Superior? Otherwise, there’s just no excuse.

  5. There is a big college in Duluth…and it’s built on a cliff (which is why Grandma’s Marathon there is so damn punishing).  It’s also why 10 inches of rain are killer, the whole city is on a hill / cliffside.

  6. We’ve only had two inches of rain in the last 18 months.  Can we get a new distribution manager for this stuff?

  7. So, maybe it’s time for Duluth and other communities in the Midwest to debate whether having 4 lane roads everywhere and enough parking capacity for every store and mall for Black Friday is worth the cost in flood damage when these events occur. 

    1.  Because as we all know, if they had two lane roads and not a lot of parking, 10 inches of rain in an already-saturated soil-base and the rain would have gone “PFFT! No four-lane roads! No sprawl! Ima take my flooding and erosion to some red-state. Thanks for nothing!”

      Let’s say Duluth turned into a city of hard-core tree-dwelling eco-warriors.

      Do you seriously think there would have been no trees damaged by the storm in such a situation? No gardens or fields wiped out by flooding?

      Maybe you do. Maybe you think that tornadoes seek out trailer parks and floods seek out highways IN RETRIBUTION.

      1. It’s a matter of degree. The more you pave, the worse the flooding gets. The more you un-pave, the better the area deals with the flooding.  Without all that macadam, there would still be floods. They would not be as bad.

        These rains will happen again, you know. 

        1.  What does Black Friday parking lots have to do with storm damage at a college? You attempting to conflate several distinct kids of sprawl, yet paint them with the worst brush (yaaah! hospital parking lots with a space for every patient. they make the floods worse!)

          1. I live uphill from my neighbor. We both get an inch of rain. I have an inch. He has an inch. An hour later, my inch runs off to his land. But his inch has also run off to the river. So he gets to deal twice with one inch of rain each time. 

            Now I pave all my land. We both get an inch of rain. 5 minutes later, I am drained, and he has two inches to deal with. Uh oh. 

            Now we get a freak rainstorm. 10 inches. 5 minutes later, he has to deal with 20 inches. I’m fine. His home is floating down the river. 

            See the issue? So. Let’s say I run a hospital. Then I might be justified in inflicting this risk on people downhill from me. Let’s say I’m running an outlet store. Shoudl I be allowed to pave? 

  8. Fox News: “Thank you, Professor Douglas, for helping us to prove President Obama was to to blame for steroid abuse in baseball.”

  9. This photo of post-storm runoff into Lake Superior is impressive: 
    (To get some perspective on distance, the distance between Duluth – the tip of the lake  on the left – and the Apostol Islands in the bottom-middle is around 90 miles.)

    I looked at the flood map, and was surprised to see that there was little to no problem in the very flat stretch down near the lake where we used to live.  As mentioned above, Duluth has some serious hills, and one would have expected the water to run down and inundate neighborhoods like ours.

  10. Them boys are lookin’ at that giant hole in the ground, and you know just one of them is thinkin’ “Christ what an asshole”. 

  11. Any civil engineers on here? Care to explain why the streets appear to be so much more vulnerable to collapse than everywhere else?

    1. Are the streets more vulnerable? There was similar damage to farm fields near me a few years ago. In this case the damage was caused as the flood receded- half a field was sucked into the river in a matter of minutes. And yes, pipework in the field remained (almost) intact.

  12. So operationally, the pinnacle of human accomplishment is our sewers? Damn things won’t fall over.

  13. Something similar has happened recently in Eastern Russia, but… …after a mild rain which lasted less than a day… The road was new and its cost was ~30 mil USD per kilometer…

  14. Duluthian here:

    First to address some small errors:

    1- There are areas where  10 inches happened in more like 24 hours.
    2 – The seal did not make it to downtown Duluth. There where two seals that made a break for it (and a polar bear) but they came nowhere near downtown.
    3- Part of Duluth (West Duluth area) is actually near.. right alongside.. a fairly big river, the St. Louis and it flows into Lake Superior. Those seals almost make it to to the river btw

    – Oh and Grandma’s Marathon does not go up the hills, but along the lakeside.

    As to the damage, what Paul Huttner says is all accurate, but it kind of misses some non-meteorological points. Not all, but a lot of the damage to the streets is surrounded either around areas where our many streams and creeks flow down to the lake, or in areas where wetlands have been built over. Over the last 100 years or so, many of the creeks where diverted into culverts and then buried under the streets. So when you have a huge amount of water in such a short amount of time there is no way those culverts are going to function and the excess water will break out and literally erode the street under which it was forced to travel under.

    The zoo? Right by Knowton Creek.
    The dramatic retaining wall collapse at the Co-op? Right over Brewer creek
    Damage at St. Scholastica? Chester creek goes trough their campus

    Miller Hill mall area flooding… all black topped wet lands

    the list goes on. Now, not ALL damage was creek related. We had some mudslides out west and the St Louis flooded and stranded folks in the Fond Du Lac area that had to be rescued by boat. The damage is real and in some parts pretty bad and hopefully we’ll get some federal aid for that, but it is also isolated and fixable. No one died. Although about 11 animals at the zoo drowned.

    1. And don’t forget that Duluth is built on a hill that is a former and extremely dormant volcano.  So it is solid rock.  There’s no drainage for basins like the one formed on the top of the hill by the mall.

      The biggest problem is with the private property damage.  Duluth hasn’t had any kind of flood at all for the last 40 years, so no one in Duluth has flood insurance.  My family is all okay, but I have some friends who will spend the next ten years or more paying to clean other people’s poop out of their houses.

      1. Twice in the last few years the deluge hitting Chicago was so bad that the city’s water reclamation pumps malfunctioned and sewage backed up into people’s basements (floor drains are a requirement, one-way valves to protect against backflow are illegal).  The only thing worse than paying someone to clean other people’s poop out of your house is having to do it yourself.  Twice.

  15. Odd. I’m wearing Minnesota t-shirt right now.  I woke up this morning to rain, which isn’t unusual in the coastal Pacific Northwest region.  The photo though, the car has Washington license plate. I’m hoping there wasn’t any “I-can-handle-the-rain” arrogance in effect when the car got dumped below street level.

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