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The ongoing fight to keep floodwaters at bay is taking a toll on these Minnesotans


A slow-moving disaster is unfolding in far northern Minnesota. For two months now, residents along a string of huge lakes by the Canadian border have been struggling to fight back floodwaters. Minnesota Public Radio's Dan Kraker reports.

DAN KRAKER, BYLINE: For Carol Toninato to get to her small white house on the shore of Rainy Lake, she first squeezes on rubber boots to wade up her driveway.

You're living on a tiny island right now.

CAROL TONINATO: That's about it. That's how it feels. That's how it feels. Everywhere you look is water.

KRAKER: Toninato is 74. Neighbors and volunteers helped build a wall of sandbags encircling the house her parents built in the 1950s. That kept it relatively dry, even when a neighbor's sandbag wall breached.

TONINATO: Once that came down, it was like a movie. You know, the water's just rushing in because it was almost the same height as the sandbags.

KRAKER: Next door, a log home is swamped, and mallards swim by in the flooded lawn just a few feet away. Down the road, 83-year-old Gary Sullivan nervously monitors the enormous 10-foot-tall wall of sandbags in his backyard that's holding back the lake.

GARY SULLIVAN: It's hard on everybody. It's hard. It's just one day after another.


KRAKER: All around is the constant hum of gas-powered pumps connected to hoses in his backyard and basement that run 24/7 to keep his house dry. Sullivan retired to this giant 50-mile-long lake along the border more than 20 years ago. Now that pristine water that drew him here is his daily nightmare. So far, his wall has held, but his neighbor's broke, which sent a torrent of water rushing through his basement windows. They managed to drain the water and rebuild the wall, but Sullivan says it's stressful to know that could happen again at any time.

SULLIVAN: This is a situation where all of us along here have to count on each other. If one of us fail, everybody fails.

KRAKER: Earlier this month, Rainy Lake broke its record flood level set in 1950, and it's only come down a few inches since. The flooding is the result of a huge winter snowpack that melted late and then record spring rains that fell on still frozen ground, sending water gushing into rivers and lakes. Now the water is five feet over some people's docks.

LARRY AASEN: It's been a battle.

KRAKER: Larry and Dawn Aasen live a few doors down from Gary Sullivan. They're in their late 60s. For them, the flood fight comes on top of an even greater personal battle.

DAWN AASEN: The hardest is he's got pancreatic cancer. So we've been - that's the worst of it all. So we've been struggling as hard as we can. So he does what he can, and I try to take up the slack.

L AASEN: She's a very good caregiver, and she's been super-busy running pumps and filling gas tanks and getting up in the middle of the night to make sure the pumps are still running.

KRAKER: The Aasens say they're persevering. Friends and family and volunteers rallied to help them and other homeowners. The flooding has also put businesses in a bind. This area is dependent on tourists drawn here to fish and visit nearby Voyageurs National Park. Thunderbird Lodge owner Stephanie Heinle says while they've managed to keep serving three meals a day, the water is literally lapping under their floors.


STEPHANIE HEINLE: So this is where the water is coming in, and we're just pumping it out before it touches the floor so we can remain open.

KRAKER: She says they're spending $700 a day on fuel just to keep the pumps running. That's an expense they'll have to bear a while longer. It could take until August before the lake recedes to near-normal levels. For NPR News, I'm Dan Kraker in northern Minnesota.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTIGONI SONG, "HIT LIST") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dan Kraker