GRANITE FALLS (AP) -- Heavy rains soaked this Minnesota River town on Wednesday, but officials were confident the labor of hundreds of volunteers would prevent a repeat of the disastrous flooding of 1997.
A little over half an inch of rain fell overnight. Despite Wednesday morning's downpour, only minor sandbagging was in progress along the river as a few people put the finishing touches on a protective barrier near a Yellow Medicine County historical museum.
On Tuesday, Mayor Dave Smiglewski estimated 1,000 volunteers filled sandbags and raised dikes higher in vulnerable parts of the city.
"Our goal is right now: Save people's houses, save people's things, and make sure that everybody is safe," Smiglewski said. "I'm optimistic that we can do that. I feel very good that we can meet that."
Earlier Tuesday, he put out an urgent appeal for volunteers after forecasters dramatically raised the projected crest of the river by at least 3 feet, based on rains forecast to last through Thursday.
The forecast had the western Minnesota town of 3,070 bracing for another disaster less than eight months after being hit by a tornado that killed one person and damaged several hundred homes. Residents were mindful that almost exactly four years ago, the Minnesota inundated downtown Granite Falls and neighborhoods on the south and southeast sides.
While the volunteers and professional construction crews have done a tremendous amount of work, the mayor said, the job wasn't over. Crews planned to spend Wednesday raising a levee just downstream of the town at least another foot to prevent water from spilling back into the community. The rain in the forecast meant it was likely to be soggy work.
The river remained largely within its banks as it rushed through the city early Wednesday.
The Minnesota was expected to reach nearly the same level as the record set in 1997 by the time it crests around Sunday. "Just an inch or two shy of that," Smiglewski said.
As he spoke, forklifts, trucks and other heavy machinery zipped dangerously about a staging area far from the river while volunteers filled sandbags, stacked them on pallets and loaded them on trucks lined up to haul them to the riverbanks.
In the heart of the city, volunteers built up dikes protecting homes and businesses on one side, while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built up an earthen berm to shield homes on the other side.
"People are really upbeat," Smiglewski said. "Man, I'll tell ya, we've got kids working like crazy here."
Even after it started raining around 9:30 p.m, a couple dozen hardy volunteers kept up the hard work of filling and loading sandbags.
Doug Bendel, 14, said he'd been working since 8:30 a.m. and didn't mind the rain. He was up on a dump truck shoveling sand through large funnels into empty sandbags held by other volunteers.
He protested when a supervisor told them to knock off because they needed to move the truck. "I don't want to shut down," Bendel said.
Paul Raney, also 14, said that at least the sandbag duty got them out of school. He said he was confident their hard work would pay off.
"We know what's coming this time," he said. "The National Guard should just move here permanently."
The Minnesota Army National Guard had sent another 40 troops Tuesday to help. Granite Falls had already declared a state of emergency before the rain began.
Sandbagging efforts were under way 12 miles upstream in Montevideo, where the Chippewa River flows into the Minnesota. Authorities were preparing Wednesday to evacuate the 18 homes remaining in one neighborhood where there were around 100 before the 1997 flood. The city has been buying out those homes and removing them ever since, but hasn't finished.
Montevideo was preparing to put the finishing touches on a 4,600-foot-long dike along U.S. Highway 212 when the new flood forecast came out Tuesday, forcing officials to decide to build it up another foot or two.
Farther west, along the South Dakota border, residents living by Big Stone Lake were told to move to higher ground. The lake could get 2 inches to 3 inches of rain in the next couple of days.
Big Stone County Sheriff Joe Berning said people in areas flooded in 1997 should prepare for high water again. He said Tuesday's warning will make it easier for people to evacuate if needed, he said.
Elsewhere, St. Paul closed its downtown airport Wednesday because of the rising Mississippi River. Officials had hoped to keep the airport open throughout the day, but the river was rising rapidly. Most tenants were able to remove their aircraft and belongings from their hangars before the airport shut down.
Farther east of the Twin Cities, a landmark lift bridge across the St. Croix River at Stillwater was closed because of high water.
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