Small towns bear brunt of flood damage

Linda Johnson
Linda Johnson stands on flood-damaged Vermillion Street outside of her husband's photography studio and family's home in Thomson, Minn. on Monday, July 9, 2012.
MPR Photo/Nathaniel Minor

The city of Duluth grabbed headlines following flooding that surged across northeast Minnesota nearly three weeks ago. But several small towns just to the southwest suffered some of the most extensive damage.

Officials now estimate that the damage in Carlton County exceeds $100 million.

The street leading into the tiny town of Thomson is still lined with portable toilets for people who lost sewer service during the flooding. A turn from the main drag reveals the disaster that has struck: A short street has collapsed into a hole several feet deep, with snowmobile-sized slabs of concrete and a culvert jutting up and down.

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At the end of this ruin of a street is one business, a small photography studio.

"We are the only business in this little town of Thomson, so it really cuts us off from our customers," said Linda Johnson, business manager for her husband's studio, Alan Johnson Photography.

Their home and studio sit on the shore of the Thomson Reservoir. When the reservoir overflowed three weeks ago, the couple hunkered down in their house. More than 24 hours later, a sheriff's deputy arrived in a helicopter to evacuate them.

"And he said, better that you go up in the basket now, than we find your body down at the end of the street when all is said and done," Johnson said.

For the next nine days, Alan Johnson set up a makeshift studio in a Duluth hotel to shoot portraits of graduating seniors. Monday was the Johnsons' first day back in their own studio.

"When they pulled off the floor, inside of each one of the wells was still standing water and mold," Johnson said.

She said their children helped them rip out and replace the waterlogged floors and walls. They estimate $80,000 in damage. They don't have flood insurance. And their homeowner's policy won't cover any of it, Johnson said.

"Basically we're on our own. We've been using out-of-pocket money. Because of all of this we are not doing real well financially," Johnson said.

Carlton County officials have finished tallying the preliminary total amount of damage to private property owners like the Johnsons. They estimate the total private property value loss at just under $22 million, in addition to at least $80 million in infrastructure damage. But the cost to repair those homes and businesses, they say, will likely be double or triple that figure.

County Coordinator Dennis Generau said the damage is spread across the entire county, from Thomson and Carlton to Barnum and Moose Lake.

"Every single city and small town has received some amount of damage, some to a pretty significant extent," Generau said.

Nearly 900 homes were damaged, including 64 that were destroyed. More than 100 homes lost at least half their value. Most of the damaged homes had completely flooded basements.

Moose Lake Flood Manager Tom Paull said the fire department pumped out at least 100 basements in his town alone.

"People lost everything that was in their basement; they lost their water heater, furnaces, washers, dryers, freezers, their electrical panels, their electrical service," Paull said.

What concerns Paull is the damage that cannot be seen from the road. He worries that people outside the region may quickly forget about the scale of the damage, and the long road that lies ahead for Carlton County.

"Help with money and funds is going to be very important to get people back to just a normal basis, a normal life," Paull said. He chokes up as he finishes.

Officials from FEMA arrive in northeast Minnesota on Wednesday to begin assessing private property damage. The state can then request another federal disaster declaration, this one for funding to help reimburse private property owners.

The frustrating part for people like the Johnsons in Thomson is that any assistance, if it even comes, could still be months away.

"It's a little tough when you have to try to make your living in a situation like this, and nobody seems to be able to do anything for us at this point," Linda Johnson said.

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