Flood victims cope without prospect of FEMA aid

Ghost Town Relics
In this June photograph, Joel Kulaszewicz walks through his shop, Ghost Town Relics, in Thomson, Minn. Kulaszewicz believes the shop, one of the oldest buildings in Carlton County, will have to be torn down after sustaining extensive damage during June's heavy rains and flooding.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Residents of flood-ravaged northeastern Minnesota are absorbing the news that the federal government likely won't be helping with the recovery.

Unless Gov. Mark Dayton can successfully appeal Wednesday's decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, some federal aid will be denied to homeowners and businesses.

In one of the worst-hit areas, the little village of Thomson just south of Duluth, the residents are reacting to the announcement from FEMA that they do not qualify for assistance.

Vermillion Street in Thomson is literally the end of the road. The block-long street, with houses on both sides, dead-ends at the Thomson Reservoir, a dammed-up section of the St. Louis River. When water spilled over the reservoir walls a month ago, it turned Vermillion Street into a four-foot deep trench.

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Today the street is passable, with a temporary gravel surface. Residents on this street are still living with the damage.

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Armas Koski and his wife Donna lost everything in their basement, including a washer and dryer. The flood carried away his metal tool shed and all the tools he uses to maintain a big garden.

Duluth Mayor Don Ness
Duluth Mayor Don Ness talks about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's decision Wednesday afternoon that private property owners impacted by June's heavy rains and flooding did not sustain enough damage to qualify for federal assistance.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

"They found some pieces of metal across Highway 210 over there. That's almost a block-and-a-half to two blocks," Koski said. "The riding mower, push mower, all the tools, weed cutters, everything went out there in the woods."

"Uh-oh, well then that's it," Koski said, reacting to the news that FEMA aid would not be disbursed to private property owners. "You got to save up and try best what you can."

Koski and his wife are both on Social Security and it'll take them a few months to save up for a new washer and dryer.

At the end of Vermillion Street, Alan and Linda Johnson are trying to keep their photography business going. They face untold thousands of dollars in of damage. Johnson said FEMA decision not to help flood-damaged businesses is a big disappointment.

"We'll plug along here and find ways to pay for things and cover our costs, but it's not going to be real easy to do," Johnson said. "And there's other people who have lost their house, all their belongings, and they're a lot older and they don't have any way to cover it."

Linda Johnson said the whole community has felt anxious since the flood.

"When we finally got our driveway last week, it felt like some order was back, a little bit of normalcy," she said. "When they put the road in, even though it's dirt instead of blacktop, it felt like at least we're home and we can function somewhat normally."

Things don't seem exactly normal at the Ghost Town Relics antique store. The wooden door flakes away at the bottom; a few rays of sunlight penetrate the dusty windows.

Alan and Linda Johnson
Alan Johnson, right, and wife Linda Johnson sustained heavy damage from June's heavy rains and flooding to their home and to Alan's photography studio in Thomson, Minn. Earlier in the day, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said private property owners impacted from June's heavy rains and flooding did not sustain enough damage to qualify for federal assistance.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Vintage snowmobiles and wringer-washers crowd the floor, and shelves are crammed with tools and bottles. Joel Kulaszewicz once had 16,000 bottles here.

The floor is buckled in places.

"From the flood," Kulaszewicz explains. "It wasn't like that before; it was really a pretty nice floor."

Kulaszewicz and his sons were planning to fix up the building, but since the flood, they've reluctantly changed their minds.

He's not surprised at the news that there won't be any help from FEMA.

"I don't care. They don't have to help me. I think we're going to tear this place down," Kulaszewicz said. "My sons are going to take over anyway, and they're planning on tearing it down. I don't know how you can fix this anymore."

The governor said he plans to appeal FEMA's ruling, but people in Thomson, and all over the flooded region, are busy getting on with their lives as best they can.