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Water Near Record Levels In North Idaho Residents Must Decide Whether To Fight Or Flee

Milo Creek chased more than a dozen families from their homes in Kellogg, while the St. Joe River swallowed a farm north of St. Maries Friday.

Residents from St. Maries to Bonners Ferry fought floods as area rivers and lakes inched toward record levels.

The St. Joe River was expected to peak today at 38.5 feet, and Lake Coeur d’Alene was predicted to climb 8 feet above summer level by Monday.

The National Weather Service also issued flood warnings for the Pend Oreille River and the Kootenai River.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has reduced the outflow of water from the Libby Dam to stabilize the Kootenai River. But the dams upstream of Lake Pend Oreille are not designed for flood control, so residents there were scrambling to protect property along its banks Friday.

The county closed the two bridges in Clark Fork to traffic because of concern that the raging river was weakening the bridge supports.

National Weather Service hydrologist Brian Avery said Lake Pend Oreille and the Pend Oreille River would likely equal or exceed flood levels that were reached in the 1972 and 1974 floods. In 1972, the lake crested at 2,065.7 feet.

“There is a possibility for significant flooding,” he said.

Kellogg had been relatively free from flood anxiety until Milo Creek plugged up with flood debris Thursday night.

The creek runs below town through a culvert. The debris blocked the culvert and sent water coursing down Third, Fourth, Silver and Main streets.

Debris also caused damage inside the culvert, and the creek began seeping above ground, flooding yards and some houses, explained Police Chief John Crawford.

“The force of the water and debris has caused the underground pipe to break in areas,” he said.

Some residents of the Amy Lynn Apartments were evacuated, as were families who live at the intersection of Market and Maple streets. The American Red Cross established an emergency shelter in the Kellogg Middle School gymnasium.

The school district also released all 18-year-old students to help with sandbagging efforts at the request of Mayor Mac Pooler.

Citizens were trying to divert the water down city streets to the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River.

“All you can do is sort of guide it where you want it to go,” Crawford said. The city of Kellogg also is under a boil-water advisory because of the threat of contamination that spring runoff poses for Big Creek, the city’s water source.

Early Friday morning, a dike downstream from St. Maries finally collapsed under weeks of pressure from the St. Joe River’s high water.

“Bud Harvey, who lives across the river, he heard the water roaring and called me at 3:30 this morning, saying he thought we had some problems,” said Bob Wilson, who farms approximately 1,300 acres that’s now under water.

“It’s going to eliminate us from getting any kind of a crop this year,” said Wilson, who grows oats and timothy hay on the farm.

The breach in the dike was about 40 or 50 feet long in the morning, but stretched 150 feet by the afternoon. The St. Joe River was rapidly filling up the fields and water was creeping uncomfortably close to the house.

The Wilsons have no livestock, but they did evacuate their cats and moved all their belongings to the second floor of the farmhouse. The family planned to stay in a motel.

Benewah County sent sandbags and fill to the farm, and neighbors and friends pitched in to help.

“We bermed around the grain bins to save last year’s crop,” said George Currier, civil defense director. His department, the dike districts and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continued to monitor leaks throughout the lengthy levee system.

“Leaks go to boils, and boils go to breaches,” Currier said. “We’re strengthening a couple more here and there.”

Sheriff’s departments cautioned boaters to watch for debris in the water and strong currents this weekend.

The Bonner County Sheriff’s Department has closed most of the major rivers to boaters because of dangerously fast and high water.

“The velocity of the rivers makes boating the water extremely hazardous,” Sheriff Chip Roos said. “I know we are going to have some white-water rafters trying to get there. All I can say right now is we won’t have time to search for your body because we won’t put divers in that kind of water.”

The Clark Fork River, Pack River, Priest River and Pend Oreille River from the mouth of Priest River west to the county line are all closed to vessels of any type.

Lake Pend Oreille, which usually doesn’t reach maximum capacity until mid-June, is above summer level and expected to rise 2 or 3 feet more in the next week. Lakefront dwellers are scrambling to keep their docks from floating away.

Some residents have piled sandbags on the docks to weight them down. Charlie Kramer, a dock builder, has been swamped with calls to help protect the piers. He has used his barge and crane to load heavy concrete landscape blocks on the tops of docks around the lake to try and keep them from floating off.

“Most of the docks we’ve built are welded down, but it doesn’t hurt to put a little weight on them,” said Kramer’s wife, Tessie, who was fielding calls. “It’s getting a little scary out there.”

Roos said Priest Lake is already nearly 2 feet above its normal level, wreaking havoc on docks and some low-lying areas. No homes were reported flooded.

Hill’s Resort has 2,000 sandbags to give out at Priest Lake and another 3,000 bags are available at the Dickensheet landfill.

“It’s between ugly and grim up there but there is nothing we can do about it but wait it out,” Roos said.

In Kootenai County, work continued on strengthening and raising the sandbag dikes around Harbor Island. Island resident Jim Anderson, in soggy tennis shoes and a straw hat, monitored a noisy pump Friday that was controlling a leak in the wall of sandbags in his yard.

“See how it’s dripping?” he said, pointing to the leaking stack of sandbags. “Once it gets started like that, there’s no way to stop it.”

The Spokane River at Harbor Island was expected to peak at 3 feet above summer level Monday, which is a foot higher than it was during the February 1996 floods.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Changed in the Spokane edition

Changed in the Spokane edition

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