Southeast Minnesota still recovering from flood disasterby Sea Stachura, Minnesota Public Radio
Record rains turned seven southeastern Minnesota counties into flooded disaster areas one year ago today. Flash floods and mud slides swept away houses and roads in Filmore, Houston and Winona counties. Dodge, Olmsted, Steele and Wabasha counties were also badly damaged.
Seven people died in the floods. More than 5,000 applied for disaster assistance. The Red Cross estimates 1,500 homes were affected by the floods. Though some families have recovered, many are still trying.
Rushford, Minn. — Jane Thompson stands with her hands on her hips, looking up at a lilac-colored house. It's the house where Thompson and her family were living at the time of the flood. She's on Rushford's main drag, just a block from Rush Creek, the creek that flooded Rushford. That night, one year ago, she left her house in a nightgown with her seven children and husband trailing behind.
'THERE WAS NO BRIDGE THAT NIGHT'
"This is the corner I came to that night," Thompson said, pointing at a bridge near the corner. "And when I looked up you could see the bridge still, because the lights were on. But there was no bridge that night, because it was all water coming at you."
The flood damaged 70 percent of Rushford's homes and 90 percent of its businesses.
The Thompsons had just rented the house and were running their own businesses. Her husband is a locksmith, she makes cakes and wedding dresses. The flood ruined most of their equipment and left them homeless.
Because they were renters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wouldn't give them any assistance. A bad mortgage ruined their credit, making it nearly impossible to get any loans.
Three months after the disaster, the family had taken up residence in a cramped upstairs apartment with a mini-stove.
"In November, we didn't have any place to go," Thompson said. "We didn't have any place to call home again."
In the seven-county disaster area, more than 5,000 residents filed for FEMA disaster assistance. Another 5,000 residents and business owners applied for federal loans.
Across the bridge over Rush Creek, it's calm and we can see its murky bottom.
"This is the norm, in some spots it's a dry bed," Thompson said.
RUSHFORD STILL BEARS SCARS OF THE FLOOD
A lot of the homes along this stretch are new. The city estimates about 100 residents left town, another 40 people have chosen to stay and rebuild in Rushford.
The Thompsons decided to stay. This week they'll move into a new yellow house -- it's still under construction.
"I'm like a kid in a candy store," she said. "I never thought we'd get to this point." Thompson and her husband qualified for a low-interest mortgage through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides some help to people who live in small towns.
Many homes in Rushford still wear the scars of the flood. Many more need to be demolished. The city has only started to replace its wastewater treatment plant and dig a new well.
Mayor Les Ladewig said all of the businesses are back, and a few have recreated themselves.
"Out of 78 FEMA trailers that were in town, we're down to only about 21," Ladewig said.
Forty-three families in the seven counties are still living in FEMA trailers.
In Rushford, new mobile homes will roll back into a trailer park next to Rush Creek. Every trailer was destroyed in the flood and officials believed the park was contaminated. Mayor Ladewig said the site is ready for new mobile homes.
Everyone likes to hear a happy ending to a tragedy. But sometimes the ending doesn't come as quickly or as happily as one would like.
Farmers in Houston and Fillmore counties are still digging sand off crop lands and replacing fencing. Farm Service Agencies in the region estimate 20,000 acres of crops were damaged.
The towns of Brownsville, Hokah, Houston, Elba, St. Charles, Goodview, Minnesota City, Winona and Stockton were also hit hard.
A SIMILAR STORY IN STOCKTON
Stockton is a town of 750 people, about 20 miles northeast of Rushford. It is nestled among the bluffs near the Mississippi River valley. Garvin Brook flooded Stockton and spun one house across town.
Leasah Lilia is grateful that wasn't her home, but 80 percent of hers was damaged. There's not much left to her home, just the subfloor and pink insulation.
"That used to be a solid wall there," Lilia said as she pointed to a stairwell.
Lilia was one of two people in Stockton who had federal flood insurance. That didn't make things easier -- she was forced to slog through a bureaucratic morass.
Her insurance paid her. But before she could use the money she had to call the state about a new floodplain map, FEMA about grants, Lutheran Disaster Response, and then the state.
All that calling meant a lot of waiting for the day she could finally start repairs. In February, she gave up waiting and hired contractors to begin work on her house.
"It's at a standstill again because of funds," Lilia said. "Because of the calling and the calling and the calling."
REBUILDING IS A STRUGGLE
Lilia is not the only one struggling to get her feet under her. Another 250 households were impacted by the flood. Most of the homes ruined in the flood still haven't been demolished. Fifteen families plan to walk away from their houses and their land, another five hope to build again.
For Lilia, rebuilding is a struggle, and she doesn't know when she'll have her house back.
"My contractor kind of took me for a ride," Lilia said. "He put two windows in downstairs, they are both bowing. Everything he's done has not been to code, so I've been having someone else come in and undo, and paying again to do the same thing again."
FEMA has awarded nearly $20 million to individuals to cover rent, repair homes and replace essentials. In terms of public assistance, FEMA has spent about $35 million.
The state provided another $100 million to businesses, communities and residents. Some of that money came in the form of forgivable loans. Organizations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Lutheran Disaster Response have distributed several million dollars.
All told, agencies distributed $160 million to people and towns in need.
- Morning Edition, 08/19/2008, 7:20 a.m.