The raging St. Joe River poured into Lake Coeur d’Alene on Saturday and the swollen lake pushed back, displacing nearly 50 families west of St. Maries.
The Benewah County residents were evacuated from the Shepard’s Lagoon area as levees along the St. Joe and its tributaries sprung leak after leak.
“The lake’s so high it’s backing into Cherry Creek,” said Dan Hammes, spokesman for Benewah County disaster services. “There’s a real serious boil on Cherry Creek dike.”
High water plagued waterside residents throughout the Panhandle, especially in St. Maries, Kellogg and the mountain town of Mullan. There was sandbagging under way from Coolin Bay at Priest Lake to Benewah county.
“It won’t stop ‘til the snow’s melted,” said Mullan resident Dennis O’Shea, nodding to a white-capped peak as Mill Creek roared through his neighborhood. “There’s places up there where the snow’s still 40, 50 feet deep.”
The National Weather Service had good news and bad news for sandbaggers: Cooler temperatures might be slowing runoff from the record snowpack, but wind hitting the mountain slopes was speeding things up.
In St. Maries, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers emergency workers were called about 5:45 a.m. to reinforce the Cherry Creek dike, which had been breached earlier in the week.
“The road was splitting almost by the minute,” a corps spokeswoman said.
Later, the families behind Shepard’s Lagoon dike were evacuated. A Red Cross disaster center was set up at Heyburn Elementary School.
Work was also done on the Cottonwood and Riverdale levees. Around noon, state Highway 3 south of town was closed for about two hours to get pumps into the parking lot of the Super Foods store. That business was among those inundated by floodwaters last year.
The St. Joe River was expected to crest by Saturday evening.
The water pouring into the Lake from the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene rivers was trying to get out through the narrow Spokane River channel.
Riverside residents between Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene were working hard to keep the water in their yards from reaching their living rooms.
On Harbor Island, they’ve been at it for weeks. Neighbors even take turns at night patrolling the sandbag walls, which proved inadequate Saturday.
“What we have is a lot of wall that is not wide enough or tall enough,” said interim fire chief Ron Sampert, commander of the Harbor Island command post.
Another command post was set up downstream near Greensferry Road, where the same battle was being fought.
Marine deputies were ready to ticket any boater who went into that stretch of river; the smallest wake would cause water to wash over the sandbags.
“We’re going to fight this thing until we either win or lose,” said Kootenai County disaster services chief Bill Schwartz. “If we lose, it won’t be because the volunteers and residents didn’t do everything.”
There was much praise for volunteers in the Silver Valley, too. Lisa Cochrane, whose Market Street home was threatened by Milo Creek, praised the high school students who showed up Friday to help.
“If it wasn’t for them, we’d have water in our homes,” she said.
The swirling brown water was a continuing threat Saturday, as it bubbled up from the patchwork of underground pipes that normally contain it.
The last time Milo Creek blew out so badly was in 1974, said neighbor Todd Goodson. He was deciding how to best place sandbags around water that bubbled from a manhole in front of his house.
Milo Creek flows into the South Fork of the Coeur d’Alene River. So does Mill Creek, which winds through the town of Mullan to the east.
Normally, Mill Creek is just a trickle in a wood-covered ditch that winds through yards and under Second Street. Lois Koivisti’s bedroom is actually built over the ravine.
Now, Mill Creek is in a rare rage and “it sounds like a freight train,” said Koivisti.
Volunteers kept up their struggle on Saturday to contain Mill Creek. At times they intentionally divert the stream into the streets, in order to clear rocks, limbs and other debris that was blocking culverts.
Elsewhere in the Silver Valley, water continued to cover Latour Creek Road, although some high-clearance vehicles got through at Cataldo.
Back at Lake Coeur d’Alene, water lapped State Highway 97, closing one lane at Beauty Bay. Every stream and lake in the region was high.
The Clark Fork River continued to threaten homes and close county bridges at Clark Fork.
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