With a struggle ahead, patience wears thin in flood zone

A worker begins the hard task of clean-up on the streets of Rushford
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Several inches of mud covered the streets and sidewalks of Rushford as the cleanup started on Monday. Philip Brand spent the afternoon working on a convenience store owned by his mother. He says the water rose so quickly Sunday morning there was nothing he could do to protect the merchandise.

"By about five, six o'clock it was up to the front doors and by nine o'clock in the morning there was about four feet of water in the store," Brand said. "It just came right up the sewers and flooded everything."

Inside the front door of the store, boxes and soft drink containers lay strewn on the muddy floor. Across the street water still surrounds several houses and garages. Workers have picked up debris and piled it on the side of the road so it can be removed. On the west side of town a trailer park still lies submerged under as much as four feet of water.

Rushford street
The street in Rushford is slimed with mud following the flashflood.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Philip Brand said he hopes to salvage some of the inventory from the convenience store.

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"Taking out anything that was still frozen in the freezers, we're going to try to save all that if we can," said Brand. "And basically everything else needs to be completely removed from the store. Everything's got to be washed and scrubbed the whole building. And then put it all back in with whatever's good that's left and hopefully insurance covers the rest."

Most Rushford residents living in the worst-hit parts of town have not returned yet to see what sort of damage their homes suffered. Law enforcement officials say parts of town are not safe yet; they're worried about things like contaminated water and gas leaks.

In the downtown area, men with pushbrooms were cleaning sidewalks. Heavy machinery was plowing the mud from the streets.

Rushford bluff
Rushford's bluffs are known for their beauty, but mudslides threatened the community during the flashfloods.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

About 10 miles downriver in the town of Houston, many residents feel they were lucky. A dike protected the town and spared residents the damage Rushford experienced.

But the town didn't escape damage free. Houston resident Faye Owens said many houses experienced basement flooding. Owens herself went through that, but says as Rushford proves, it could have been much worse.

"All I have is water in my basement," Owens said. "And I'm sure we've lost our furnaces, washers, dryers, you know any appliances down there. But it's so fortunate."

The Houston dike didn't protect everyone. People on the wrong side of the levy saw severe flooding. Nick Carney and his wife, Tasha, own a farm on the edge of town. Nick said flood waters flowed through the first floor of his house. A barn on the property suffered heavy damage.

Flooded car
A van shows the depth of water outside a home in Rushford.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"I had a Jeep sitting next to the long barn in the driveway and that's moved 200 yards out into the field," said Nick Carney. "It picked up thousand pound boulders and just moved them through the yard. It's just a disaster."

He says they want to continue living on the farm, but will need to do a lot of fixing up. He and his wife Tasha attended a public meeting Caledonia about the flood.

"We just don't have anything, so that's why we're here. Because we're kind of feeling a little helpless," said Tasha Carney.

Government officials at the meeting promised all the help they can give. The gaps that aid must close can be heard in the anguish of Tasha Carney's voice.

Mud in the house
The interiro of a building in Rushford is coated with mud.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

In Winona, about 60 area residents confronted Gov. Tim Pawlenty late Monday afternoon. They say they aren't getting the help they need.

The Winona County meeting room was full of people with muddy pants and boots, women in sweatsuits hitching babies on their hips, men hunkered down in their seats. Some glared at the floor. Signs at the Red Cross and at Wal-Mart told them FEMA would hold a public meeting at that time.

But FEMA wasn't there, and wasn't supposed to be there. Instead, Gov. Pawlenty walked to the podium.

"We have the best chance of getting through this if we unite and work together to get this done," Pawlenty said. "There's going to be a lot of issues. There's going to be issues relating to crop damage for farmers. There's going to be economic loss and business disruption for small business owners. There's going to be endless issues for homeowners who either do or don't have insurance."

Highway 61 in Goodview, Minnesota
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Pawlenty told them it would be some time before more permanent housing and recovery dollars become available. In the meantime, he said, go to local emergency and the Red Cross for your immediate needs.

A woman in the front row raised her hand. She said she and her three- and four-year-old children left Goodview without ID, without anything. "Try getting a three year old to sleep on a cot," she said. And she told him, she can't even get a booster seat from the Red Cross.

"Before we leave, you see the folks with me, we'll make sure you get to a Red Cross person and if need be I'll drive you to the store myself and get you a booster seat. That shouldn't be that big of a problem," Pawlenty responded.

But this was just the start of the torrent of questions. Some people complained that no troops or police are patrolling their neighborhoods. Others said they have to throw absolutely everything away, but have no dumpsters or trucks. There were lots of questions. So many that Winona County officials agreed to hold a weekly information meeting. The first is this Thursday at the Church of the Nazareen in Winona.

Ready for repairs
Dump trucks are hauling materials to and from Minnesota City to repair the bridge, railroad and roads in the town.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Michael Heil lived in a Winona apartment complex with his wife and their two small children. Heil said his apartment wasn't badly flooded, but he said raw sewage is in the building.

"Our foundation is starting to sink in. We're trying to figure out whether we should even bring our kids back because there's gasoline in the water, you can see it in the water. It's become a polluted place and we don't know what to do," he said.

Heil said he only makes $12 an hour. The family's church is paying for a week at the Quality Inn. What's after that? Gov. Pawlenty couldn't say for sure. They'll need to ask the Red Cross until Pawlenty can get a federal disaster declaration declared for the region.

Pawlenty just submitted another such request for the collapsed 35W bridge. When the flood disaster declaration is signed, FEMA will begin helping people affected by the flood.

Underwater park
Just north of Winona along Highway 61.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said he has no sense of when that might happen. He said representatives are in the state.

"We hope to have an assessment team down here by the end of the week," he said. "We have been told by FEMA that they have obligations in Texas, Oklahoma and Florida. So they are strapped, they are pushed almost maybe to their limits."

While a federal disaster declaration may help the state pay for some of the infrastructure that's been destroyed and crops lost, people are calling their insurance companies now. Many residents talking with Pawlenty said they don't have flood insurance. Some couldn't get it because they weren't in a flood plain. Others, like Bruce Anderson, said the insurance agencies just won't pay. Anderson has two businesses in the Minnesota City Industrial Park. He said his shop floor still has 10 inches of water in it. His insurance company said it's water damage. They can't cover it.

Minnesota City's  damage
Kelly Tobin and her boyfriend were sleeping in the basement of a house east of Highway 61 in Minnesota City. Tobin was hauling debris from the house on Mnday. She says the flood waters broke through the basement window., She and her boyfriend woke up to their bed shifting underneath them.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"How do you take 17 or 18 years of building a business, watch it just fill up with mud and water and how do you try to have an intelligent conversation with somebody who is saying they can't help you and maintain dignity?" he said. "Desperation comes out. Hostility comes out."

Gov. Pawlenty said he understands the concerns and problems. However, he could only suggest that legislation could be drafted to prevent insurance companies from getting around paying for property damage in catastrophes in the future.

Judging by the faces in the audience, all this was cold comfort.

It rained on and off on Monday, but nowhere near the levels that caused the flash floods that hit Saturday night and into early Sunday morning. Jessica Brooks, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis., said there was a chance of more rain in the flooded areas through Friday. The Weather Service said 17 inches of rain had fallen in Witoka.

The speed of that rainfall was a factor in the deaths.

Washout in Minnesota City
A road washout outside the post office in Minnesota City.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

David Roland Ask, of Houston, died when his trailer home was swept away in Mound Prairie Township, said sister-in-law Sandy Ask.

Ask, 55, had never married and lived alone in the trailer. Early Sunday morning his neighbor up the hill called him to tell him to move to higher ground.

"At that time he looked out and he said, 'It's only a foot from my door, but I think it's receding, I think I'll be all right.' A couple hours after that we really got a downpour," she said.

When the sun rose the neighbor looked out and Ask's trailer had been swept away.

Ask's father, Roy, already recovering from a heart attack in late July, had to be taken by helicopter to a hospital in La Crosse on Sunday, Sandy Ask said.

David Thomas Blackburn, of Spring Grove, died in LaCrescent Township.

The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported Blackburn, 37, died after his foot became wedged between his vehicle and a tree after his car carrying his wife, Dawn, and a friend was swept off County Road 6 by high water.

He helped his wife and their friend into a tree before he and the vehicle were swept away, according to Dawn's aunt, Lori Stoen, of Spring Grove. The Blackburns had two young sons. Both worked in Caledonia at Miken, a baseball and softball bat maker.

(Material from the Associated Press was used in this story.)