By KYLE WHITNEY
Journal Staff Writer
MARQUETTE - A decade ago, a reeling Marquette County community was picking up the pieces - literally. It was May of 2003 when a major flood of the Dead River rocked the area, damaging homes and roadways and forcing thousands of residents to evacuate the northern portion of the city.
Marquette Board of Light and Power workers watch as floodwaters from the Dead River pass through a collapsed levee at Tourist Park. (Journal file photos)
Flood damage from the Dead River is seen at Marquette County Road 550 at the north end of Marquette’s Tourist Park. (Journal file photos)
A structure is surrounded by the waters of the Dead River Basin at the height of the 2003 flood. (Journal file photo)
The groundwork for the flood was laid in late April and early May, when the dense snowpack in the Huron Mountains melted. At that time, 5 to 7 inches of water were deposited in the Silver Lake Basin in northwest Marquette County.
Then, days later, a pair of low pressure systems swept across the central Upper Peninsula, bringing heavy rain - between 4 and 5 inches in that area.
Rain events of that magnitude are extremely rare, and the National Weather Service estimates that, on average, 5 inches of rain will fall during a 48-hour period less than twice per century.
The final piece of the disastrous puzzle came during the late afternoon hours of May 14, 2003, when a fuse plug - a type of emergency water release system - in the Silver Lake Dam failed.
Over the next few days, more than 8 billion gallons of water poured out of the basin and downstream, toward the Dead River Storage Basin, Lake Superior and the city of Marquette.
"It's kind of like a whole recipe had to come together - a perfect storm," Matt Zika, a meteorologist with the NWS in Negaunee Township, said recently. "Obviously, when you release that volume of water in that short amount of time, it's going to cause a lot of problems."
The rushing waters carved a half-mile long channel - 300 feet deep and 25 feet wide - through the section where the fuse plug failed.
As the waters rushed downstream and dumped into the Dead River Storage Basin - a body of water much larger than the Silver Lake basin - all eyes were on the Hoist Dam, at the southeast shore of the basin.
"If that dam goes, the McClure Dam (located downstream of the Hoist Dam) will probably go too," Marquette Sheriff Mike Lovelace said at the time. "If that thing lets loose, you can forget it. Everything north of Wright Street gets it."
Police went door-to-door in north Marquette, evacuating 2,300 citizens. The dam held, but when the water level in the basin crested, it was 4.44 feet above the spillway level, overtopping the structure. The waters then overtopped the McClure Dam, cresting 5.13 feet above that spillway, and the Forestville Dam.
In anticipation of the floodwaters approaching the city, the water level in north Marquette's Tourist Park basin was drawn down 5 feet. Still, when the water rushed in, it overtopped the small dam and carved a ravine around it. Trees and roads were torn from the earth and carried toward Lake Superior.
Bridges, roads and rail lines were washed out, and utility service to Big Bay was interrupted. Flood damage closed the Presque Isle Power Plant, as well as the Empire and Tilden mines.
In the end, nine bridges were damaged or destroyed, two parks and three public access sites were thrashed, the river channel was realigned in a major way and a massive collection of sediment and debris rushed into Lake Superior.
For the better part of a decade, the Tourist Park basin was little more than an empty pit.
Despite the destruction wrought by the rushing floodwaters, there were no injuries related to the disaster.
Over the years, things have very slowly returned to normal along the banks of the Dead River. Reconstruction projects restored the Silver Lake Basin and earlier this month, almost exactly 10 years after the plug failure, the basin was fully refilled.
And in the city, the Marquette Board of Light and Power recently completed a major renovation project that resulted in the erection of a new dike and spillway and the resurrection of the dam.
The Tourist Park Basin has been refilled, the beach has been restored and the dam is once again making power.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.