The town of Elba mucks out

High water mark
This high water line in an Elba garage is more than four feet off the floor.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

The muddy flood from the Whitewater River is gone, but its signature remains. It's written in a thin brown line visible on most houses.

The high water mark varies, but at its worst, it's nearly five feet off the ground. That means in many houses the main floor got soaked. Carpeting and drywall are ruined.

Throwing out
Throwing things out in Elba.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Don Prebe's house is on that list. He leads the way inside.

"It's a little slippery," says Prebe.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The linoleum on the kitchen floor is slick with mud and water. Workers in the living room are tearing up the old floor. The flood waters on the main floor were about a foot deep.

"We tore all of our carpet out already," says Prebe. "You can see it was up to that first step, over the first step going upstairs."

Prebe says this is at least the third flood he's been through. This one is by far the worst. One Elba resident measured 17 inches of rain last weekend in the town 20 miles east of Rochester.

"I'm just happy that I got my life, I've got my family and the town people have stuck behind me."

That's trouble anywhere, but it's especially dangerous here.

Back outside the house, Prebe can look up from his driveway and see the wooded, green hills that surround the community. His son Daniel, 15, says the bluffs are a beautiful sight -- most of the time.

"It's nice when it's like sunrise, perfect," says Daniel Prebe. "Now it's just horrible. You got all the stuff come off the hill. All of the gunk out of the river. It's nasty. It's heavy, too, and hard to pick up."

During the flash flood the hills channeled uncounted streams into the Whitewater River, pushing it over the banks. The river topped the dike protecting the town, sending floodwaters into Elba.

A few houses past the Prebe residence, the town's mayor Don Ball is keeping an eye on the cleanup work.

Donald Ball
Elba Mayor Donald Ball works on the cleanup of his town.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

Ball is an ex-biker with a tattooed heart. The fading images on his shoulders are things like eagles and skulls. The one inside must say something like "I love Elba."

"I'm just happy that I got my life, I've got my family and the town people have stuck behind me," says Ball. "It's just been super. Had a little problem at first, but it seemed like when everybody started pitching together they forgot that anger and stuck together as a village."

Ball climbs into an all-terrain vehicle to show a visitor around the town of about 200 people. As he drives down main street, he keeps up a running narrative of the people and lives changes forever by the flood.

"This lady here's an old, elderly lady that's retired. As you can see she lost everything. She lost everything," says Ball. "This is an older lady, Selma Turner, she lost everything. Gary Thelen lives here, and he didn't lose everything, but he got water and it was a mess." Ball says there are many low-income people in town and he says they may need help to stay in Elba.

For at least one homeowner, it looks like the flood of 2007 will be his last. There's a sign on his front window.

"For Sale"
It's not clear if this sign on a damaged house in Elba is humor or for real.
MPR photo/Mark Steil

"Now this guy here he pulled the plug a little fast. Yesterday he wrote on this window. You'll see it as we go by. For sale. He lost everything," says Ball.

Ball hopes the homeowner is the exception. In a way, the mayor says the flood has pulled the town closer together, making people want to stay. He says one man's ex-wife volunteered to help him out. People who hadn't talked much recently found plenty to say to each other after the flood. Others are donating things like generators and pumps.

It's going to be along way back, but Ball believes the town's taken a good first step.