Flood soaks western U.P.

Damage is severe, widespread as torrential rains pummel region early Sunday

Torrential rains early Sunday washed out the roadway on M-26 in Ripley. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

HOUGHTION — Heavy rain throughout the Copper Country Sunday morning — totaling up to 7 inches — triggered an epic flash flood that tore up asphalt streets and damaged homes and businesses.

There was a temporary lull of rain during the daytime on Sunday, but the National Weather Service out of Negaunee Township was warning of further storms and flash flood risks developing late Sunday afternoon and evening — from 6-9 p.m. in particular for stronger storms.

“These showers and thunderstorms that have developed could definitely contain moderate to heavy rainfall and we certainly could see lightning out of them,” said NWS meteorologist Linda Gilbert. Damaging winds and hail were also a possibility.

The areas already experiencing flooding are of heightened concern, from Houghton County to Gogebic and Menominee counties — as well as Baraga and Ontonagon counties.

The Calumet Colosseum was offering shelter to those with damaged homes or in evacuation zones, particularly from the Lake Linden and Hubbell area, where damage was extensive. Aspirus Lake Linden Clinic in Lake Linden will be closed today.

The damage is severe to the Taco Bell restaurant in Houghton. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

The Houghton County Sheriff’s Office is urging people to stay off the roads until the rain events end. Any travel should be cautious and slow in areas with water over the road. If fast-moving water is present, turn back and locate a safer route.

Michigan Technological University announced its campus will be closed today.

Local emergency response teams are on the ground blocking off the many compromised streets and dangerous areas.

In Houghton, a swollen creek washed away much of the nearby parking lot and a Taco Bell sign, threatening businesses. The land up to the restaurant’s building caved into the adjacent ravine.

Keith Anderson, an emergency services worker, was on scene trying to keep curious locals away from the new water-filled gorge. The rain started around midnight and he was called out at 4 a.m., when the flash flooding is thought to have started.

A truck is slipping into a crevice caused by swiftly running water on a sideroad near Chassell. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo)

“Get away from that edge. There’s nothing under you,” he shouted at a group wandering onto an undercut slab on the other side. He received a middle finger in response.

“I know it all seems like fun until you’re in the drink,” said Buck Foltz of the Houghton Fire Department, who was monitoring the Houghton waterfront along West Lakeshore Drive. The site of Saturday night’s Bridgefest festivities was now a torrent of water rushing into the Portage waterway, complete with waterfalls.

The level of damage and flooding is historic.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Foltz said. “The problem is you have all this pavement now, so there’s nowhere for the water to go into the ground, so you build these storm sewers, but this (volume) is what you don’t plan for.

“It’s all storm sewer, and it can’t accommodate the amount of water, so then it just wears it out,” he added.

With more rain coming, Foltz was concerned even more of the area will go into the Portage Canal.

In downtown Houghton, businesses and residents are already attempting to clean up and salvage merchandise and belongings.

Water flowing down Dodge Street continued through the businesses at the bottom of the hill, including 5th and Elm, offices of the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region, Black Ice Comics and Center Ice Skate and Sport. Owners and employees were on scene attempting to save and salvage goods when possible.

5th and Elm owner Frank Fiala only heard about the flooding when an employee contacted him at 7 a.m. Sunday. Fiala told him to stay put and he would open the coffeehouse himself.

At that point he received a voicemail from a friend offering help.

“I said, ‘I wonder what that’s all about’ and I got here about 7:20, and then I quickly found out,” he said.

The building was directly in the path of the moving wall of water.

“It came through this sinkhole here,” Fiala said, pointing to a former outdoor seating area. “This used to be the old city street, see. This was filled in in the late ’70s when they built the building, and as a consequence it’s gone down, and it just took everything out and went through a wall. They’ve got substantial damage down below.”

The water that was flowing through the streets when he arrived had subsided by late Sunday morning, leaving the distinctive trail of rocks and sediment seen across the region, even in areas like Painesdale, one of the highest points of elevation in the Copper Country.

“It’s just one of those events where you get an incredible amount of water in a short amount of time, and it’s just really one of those things you can’t plan for,” Fiala said.