A tornado might've been a better alternative to a flash flood nearly a year ago for southeast Minnesota cities like Rushford, Stockton, Goodview, Minnesota City, Houston and La Crescent. At least then, the residents might not have had to pile thousands of dollars of debt onto the debt they already had. At least then homeowner's insurance would've helped them glue their communities back together.
The Legislature eventually approved $160 million in aid for the region, but a convoluted process required the homeowners to apply for loans first. With many jobs lost, many homeowners prayed they'd be rejected for the loans, so they could qualify for direct payments. Even that came with strings attached. Recipients can't move for at least 10 years. Renters and landlords got nothing.
Nearly one year later, Rushford is still struggling.
You first heard from Crystal and Colin Schroeder last February here on News Cut. On Friday, I visited with both in their home, which they've worked to put back in shape. Colin Schroeder says it's a good thing he's handy because it's been a stretch to make relief money last long enough to cover the repairs. (Listen to Crystal Schroeder describing the process)
"FEMA made it good because all you had to do is call," Crystal Schroeder recalls. "I never met a town that wanted so much to be denied and have bad credit. When Norm Coleman and Tim Pawlenty came down, we said, 'we can't do a loan; we've got those already.' A lot of us were taking time off from work and not getting paid. The frustration level was pretty high."
The equity that people had in their homes vanished when the state loans kicked in. "You look at sending kids to college, home improvements, new cars, whatever, you can't access any of the equity in your home," Colin Schroeder says.
Hanging baskets line the lamp posts of Rushford's main street. But they mask what's happening a block off the highway in any direction. While some new houses have been built, others are still dilapidated, some lots are vacant, some FEMA trailers still house the victims, Few volunteers -- only four last week -- still show up. And the money is running out.
"Things were pretty good and pretty positive until the last month," Crystal says. "We're coming up on the one-year anniversary. People are stressed out; we've been doing this all year long. We go up to the Cities every now and then to see my parents; you feel guilty when you leave because you know there's stuff you should be doing. You feel guilty when you spend any money on anything that might be enjoyable at all."
"It's very hard listening to the media," she says, recalling a caller to a Twin Cities radio talk show who said, "they've all got their money. Wouldn't I love to have $23,000 to fix up my house.' Even my folks up in the city, people ask them, 'everything's fine down there, right?'" (Listen)
"People don't seem to realize, it's not OK," she says. The "scary part" is Lutheran Social Services, which has coordinated much of the volunteer effort, is wrapping up its work at the end of next month.
"We have 34 homes that need a major rebuild. We're to the point where people have run out of money, we're stressed out, we're tired, and the help isn't there."