Six dead as flooding hits SE Minnesota

The powerful water washed out a road in Stockton, exposing the culvert underneath.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

The rain came down for hours in southeastern Minnesota, and at times went from a heavy mist to a downpour. More than 10 inches of rain scoured parts of Olmsted and Houston counties. But the real damage followed the rivers as they gushed through towns like Stockton, Goodview, Minnesota City, Houston and La Crescent.

As Marilyn Shaw stood on the road in front of her sister's house, part of the foundation was gone. The National Guard surveying the area marked an orange 'X' on the front door.

"She had sat on her kitchen table for four hours waiting for a rescue and not knowing if she was going to live. That what breaks our heart, because we were home sleeping," Shaw said.

A house was heavily damaged and a vehicle swept away by floodwaters.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

The Shaw house had been hit once before, in a 1998 flash flood that rushed through Stockton. The house next door was hit in that flood, too. The owners had just finished a their last remodeling job. Now that house is gone, wiped off its foundation. The torrent of water that turned most of Stockton into a mud flat moved that house three blocks through town with the owners on the roof.

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Sean Wehlage says he was up on his family's roof when the house went past.

"They were on their house screaming," he recalled. "I shined them with a flashlight off my rooftop, and it was like the Wizard of Oz. That house was, like, turning in slow motion, and they were on top screaming and we had our flashlights on them and there was nothing we could do."

Vineyard underwater
A four-acre vineyard north of Byron, Minn., was underwater on Sunday morning. "The posts in the middle are the top 3 feet of a 10-foot-tall fence. The tips of 6-foot vineyard posts are barely visible in the back," photographer Steven Patton said.
Photo contributed by Steven Patton

The homeowners were hospitalized.The house was dumped on the railroad tracks on the other side of town. Parts of those tracks were also lost in the rush of water.

Nearby, a side street is sunk into the mud. Pieces of it are snapped like a cracker. The houses that weren't badly hit had flood waters up to the front door and soaking basements. Many in the area don't have flood insurance.

Gov. Pawlenty says the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency will provide some relief. But in the meantime, county officials aren't sure they've found all the victims of the flood.

Four people died in Winona County. Near Stockton a 67-year-old man and his 66-year-old wife were driving when the water rushed over the road and took the car with it. Another couple died on County Road 17 when the road collapsed under the force of water. The man was 80 years old, his wife was 68. A 37-year old man is still missing.

Homeowner pumps water
Larry Sass pumps water out of a flooded home in Stockton, Minn.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

In Houston County, two people died, one in Houston, and another in La Crescent.

Most of Houston County is inaccessible. Sixteen roads were closed from mud slides, downed trees and damaged bridges. The 900 residents of the town of Houston were evacuated to Caledonia. And just to the west in the Fillmore County town of Rushford, state Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes says people are dazed.

"And they only have what they have in their hands," she said. "The water is tremendous in Rushford. It's taken out the entire trailer park area, the community park is still underwater, the current is still very strong in Rush Creek."

Sean Wehlage of Stockton says he was up on his family's roof when a house floated by.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

FEMA officials are touring Rushford Monday. And 100 Minnesota National Guard troops are securing the area and helping with rescue efforts. Troops are also in Goodview, Stockton and Minnesota City.

Water and mud aren't the only concerns in this emergency. Winona Chief of Police Frank Pomeroy says rescue teams have to watch out for contaminated water and other hazards as well.

"And to be honest with you there are a lot of propane tanks that were attached to houses that are now floating. So there are a lot of issues that still need to be taken care of, so if you do go out there, remember that it is still a very, very dangerous area," he said.

Most of the region has been under voluntary evacuation. Officials are uncertain how many people have been affected, but it's likely several thousand. Gov. Pawlenty declared a state of emergency in six counties: Houston, Winona, Fillmore, Wabasha, Olmsted and Steele.

Marilyn Shaw surveys her sister's home in Stockton. Part of the foundation was washed away.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

As estimates and tallies of sewer systems, roads, bridges, trees, power lines, houses, crops and property damaged, the state will again ask for federal aid.