Thanksgiving is bittersweet for southeast Minnesota flood victimsby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
In August, flash floods washed over towns and severely damaged a couple of thousand homes and businesses. In towns like Stockton, Rushford and Houston people were stuck on roofs and forced out of their homes. Three months later, many residents are still filling out paperwork and looking for housing.
Rushford, Minn. — Jane Thompson and her husband have seven children and they are, all things considered, a well-behaved, happy clan.
This evening her five-year old is drawing on the Rubbermaid container Thompson uses for a coffee table. Her four-year old sits on the 16-year old's lap at the computer.
More than 200 homes were destroyed in Rushford when the Root River flooded its banks. The Thompson's home was one of them. Now, the nine-member family lives in a three bedroom apartment in Rushford next to a bar.
"We moved here two months after the flood and it was move number 12. We went from motels in Winona, to motels in Houston to Preston, to La Crosse, Wisconsin, back to Winona, kind of all over," Jane Thompson says.
Before the flood Thompson ran a wedding cake and dress-making business from her home. Her husband worked at a local college and ran his own locksmith business. The previous year they lost their home in a mortgage scam. They'd just moved into a bed and breakfast and they were about to buy it for their home when the flood struck.
"Three weeks after moving in we were literally ripped out of our home at 3:30 in the morning with five minutes to get not only seven children out, but nine guests who were still in the four front rooms of the bed and breakfast." They lost most of their belongings, including all of the locksmith and baking equipment. The small businesses are gone.
Thompson relates the last three months laughing and crying. Several of her kids are quietly listening in. She says everything twice, as though even she can't believe it.
"One of our sons, our 10-year old cried for about the first week every night. He was afraid to go to sleep," she says. "If you look back it rained off and on for a week after the flood and he was petrified. My four-year old wouldn't get out of the van. Anytime she saw a puddle for about the first three weeks, She'd say, 'daddy don't open that door, don't open the door because all that water will come in.'"
For a while FEMA told the Thompsons they would get a trailer. Then FEMA lost their paperwork. Then it denied the family a trailer because they weren't homeowners. The Small Business Administration denied them loans because of the foreclosure on their previous home. So, Thompson called her state and federal representatives. She had all of them asking questions on her behalf. She didn't get a FEMA trailer, but she did get a few grants and generous donations of clothes and supplies.
If it sounds exhausting, she says, it is. She's still filling out forms.
"In my case, personally, I felt treated like a second class citizen by them. I just didn't matter. And I thought, I would love to stand my seven children in front of you people and tell them they don't matter," she says.
She has no idea where the family will finally live, but she knows it will be in Rushford.
The state wants people to stay in flooded towns like Rushford. It has offered forgivable home loans if residents commit to stay in town for 10 years. The city has argued for good deals on business loans for its businesses. Forty-eight of the town's 55 businesses have re-opened.
But the Thompsons can't get any of those loans. Without space for new key machines and sewing equipment, they also can't earn what they once did. Jane Thompson says a number of friends and relatives have suggested the family leave town, start again in some other small town. She can't.
"Some people would call it spiritual. Some people might call it intuition. I'm not sure what I call it. But myself and my family have a purpose in Rushford. I don't know what it is. I don't know if it's as simple as having two businesses here and raising seven kids in a small town, but my gut and my heart tell me, you're not to leave yet."
This Thanksgiving the family has borrowed a banquet table and bought a roaster. They'll move the couch and the rubbermaid coffeetable and clear a few boxes. Then they'll set up the table in the living room, and eat together, all at one table for the first time in three months. The walls are bare and it's a little cold. But Thompson says she is grateful for the donations, for her family's strength and for the wisdom to stay put.
- All Things Considered, 11/22/2007, 5:24 p.m.