Rushford asks: 'Will they be there' to help?by Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
In Rushford, Minnesota, residents are coping with extreme conditions following last weekend's flood -- no water, no sewer, no phones, no power. They may be able to begin returning to their homes Thursday. And they're waiting for help.
Rushford, Minn. — Four days after the flood, Rushford officials are still trying to restore basic services.
The water is undrinkable -- they're not sure if it's entirely free of flood contaminants. The state Health Department says people shouldn't even use it to wash.
The sewer plant's not working -- it was swamped in the flood. Pumps must be repaired or replaced. The bacterial bugs that break down the waste need time to rebuild their numbers.
All the equipment in the telephone office downtown was destroyed. Only parts of town have electrical service.
All of this means mostly sleepless nights for Rushford City Administrator Windy Block.
"I know this is bad," says Block. "We know we're going to need help, and I don't think the world knows yet how bad this is."
Standing on main street, Block can see trucks hauling debris, pumps emptying basements and a street sweeper kicking up clouds of dust as it scours mud left from the flood.
Block says the flood destroyed 176 homes and damaged another 70 so badly they may be unfixable. The town suffered an estimated $38 million in damages. That's a substantial loss in a community of 1,800 people.
Businesses were also hard hit. Most of the downtown was flooded with several feet of water. Block says what happens to those businesses will affect the town's recovery.
"I think there's like 93 structures down there. I'm guessing most of them are not salvageable. There's probably 40 percent, maybe if you spend the money, you can bring it back," says Block. "We're going to lose some of those, and what they choose to do is a bigger worry about keeping the vitality of the community into the future."
The lost businesses are already having an impact. Christine Ronnenberg is standing outside a downtown Rushford store. She works here.
"This is Terry Litscher's meat processing plant," says Ronnenberg. "The flood came through, I guess they figure about 14 to 16 inches, and we're shut down for a while."
The flood cut off electrical service to the store's refrigeration units, causing all the meat in the building to spoil. It also cost Ronnenberg her job. She had a second position in town to fall back on, at the liquor store; but the high water also ended that job.
"There's been worse disasters in this country, but this one's pretty bad," says Ronnenberg. "It's put a lot of people out of their homes, and it's put a lot of people out of their businesses, their jobs, their whole livelihood. Really, there's nothing anybody can do than go and get in the mud, or sit at home and wait for news. We need help down here."
An important part of that assistance may come from the government. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, has begun its flood damage assessment.
FEMA teams fanned out to begin surveying flood damage in the area Wednesday, a crucial step in deciding whether the state will earn a federal disaster declaration.
FEMA teams were sent out to examine the need for individual assistance -- such as for homeowners, renters and small business owners -- as well as public assistance -- such as for roads, government properties and overtime pay for emergency workers.
Carlos Mitchell, FEMA's preliminary damage assessment team leader for Minnesota flooding, said a finding of 100 to 150 damaged homes should add legitimacy to the state's request for aid, which could include low-interest loans and grants.
A preliminary "windshield" survey by the American Red Cross identified about 4,200 homes affected by the flood, including 256 complete losses, 338 with major damage and 475 that are still inaccessible, said Kris Eide, the state's director of homeland security and emergency management.
Eide said she was confident flood damages would surpass the $6 million mark required for a federal disaster declaration.
Assuming President Bush declares a flood disaster for the area sometime in the future, the FEMA assessment will help determine where the federal dollars go.
At a meeting in Rochester on Wednesday, FEMA's Minnesota spokeswoman Melynda Petrie said the money should start flowing as soon as the declaration is made.
"If it is declared for individual assistance -- again that's the homeowners, the residents -- then that would cover temporary housing, that would cover debris removal, things like that," said Petrie.
The problem is, no one knows when the disaster declaration will be made and when the federal help will arrive.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty asked President Bush on Wednesday to speed up a disaster declaration for the flooded area, rather than wait until the typical preliminary damage assessments are complete.
The president said a day earlier that the federal government would move quickly to process requests for help.
Rushford City Administrator Windy Block says he's hopeful.
"Given the severity of this, everyone sort of thinks somebody should be there to help a little bit," says Block. "And the question is -- will they be there? At his point I don't know."
Block says officials in Rushford and all the other flooded towns in southeast Minnesota need a break. He describes the days since the flood as basically dealing with problem after problem after problem. Big problems. Next on his list -- fix sewage plant.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)
- Morning Edition, 08/23/2007, 7:20 a.m.