Flood-ravaged Duluth, northeast Minnesota, still recovering a year later

Brewery Creek flooding
In one of many startling scenes from a year ago as torrential rain unleashed devastating flooding across northeast Minnesota, Brewery Creek burst through a retaining wall adjacent to the Whole Foods coop in Duluth.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Inside Jay Cooke State Park off Highway 210, the earth plummets some 60 feet to where a big backhoe is moving dirt.

Where there once was only a small culvert running under the road, the state Department of Transportation is building a new $3 million bridge.

The work was made necessary a year ago today, when a wall of water surged down the hillside here, cleaving the highway in two. In its wake it left a small canyon, 300 feet across. Up to 10 inches fell in just 24 hours, flooding hundreds of basements, ripping up streets, and opening up giant sinkholes that swallowed cars.

Since then, construction crews have worked tirelessly on public transportation projects, repairing much of the damage, from Duluth to Sturgeon Lake. Federal disaster funding covered 75 percent of the cost of repairing roads and bridges.

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"I think by the end of summer we will see complete repair," said state Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth. "And considering the devastation from a year ago, that's pretty remarkable."

But stark reminders of the flood's destruction remain, particularly for some of the 1,900 homeowners who suffered significant flood damage. Many are struggling to come up with the money to make repairs.

Ripping down ceiling tiles
Dan Sandor rips ceiling tiles out of the home of Judith O'Neill in the Fond du Lac neighborhood of Duluth on June 10, 2013. O'Neill has received a forgivable state loan to help rebuild this house, which her parents bought along the St. Louis River in 1953. Shea's living at a house owned by the Fond du Lac Community Church until her home is rebuilt.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

A year after the heavy rains, the walls and ceiling in the lower level of Mike and Tammy Turnbill's Barnum home are still missing. Studs and insulation are visible and old sheets cover the windows. The kitchen table is covered with tools. Because they don't yet have a kitchen, the Barnums cook with a microwave or on the grill, and wash dishes in a basement tub.

When Turnbull, a Duluth public works employee, arrived at his Barnum home after work last June 19th, the water in his basement was up to his hips.

"It just started coming up higher and higher," he said. "I was up all that night watching the water come in the front door."

For them, and others whose homes were damaged by the heavy rains, the recovery process has been rockier. Tammy Turnbill and their children lived in a motel for two weeks. After they returned home, it took months to remove the stench that soaked into the walls and floor. They ran several fans around the clock.

The whole process has been so frustrating, long, and now here it is a year later, and we're just starting to get some work done.

"We pretty much had to rip everything down just to get it dried out," said Mike Turnbill, 58. But he took the damage in stride.

"You take a lot of things for granted," he said. "Then this happens, and you learn to appreciate things quite a bit."

Like many residents, the Turnbills have pieced together recovery aid. Sewer backup insurance paid for a new furnace and hot water heater. Local donations helped with supplies.

The Turnbulls had hoped to obtain a no-interest, forgivable loan from a flood-relief program set up by the Legislature. But because they qualified for an $8,000 federal loan with less favorable terms, they weren't eligible. So the work continues more slowly than they hoped, financed by the federal loan and credit cards.

About 10 to 15 percent of flood victims are stuck in a similar situation, still trying to figure out exactly how to pay for repairs underway, according to Flood Homes with Hope, a regional group set up to help flood victims find the assistance they need.

Although 744 households received low-interest loans through the federal Small Business Association, which lent about $9.7 million to residents whose homes were damaged, not everyone will benefit. The state issued more than 259 Quick Start loans for $4.5 million.

About 5 to 10 percent are in worse shape than the Turnbills, often because they didn't qualify for state or federal assistance. Dozens won't be able to rebuild their homes.

Carlton County assessor Marci Moreland said she still receives a couple calls a week from people looking for help.

Judith O'neill's home in Fond du Lac
One year after floodwaters from the St. Louis River submerged her home in Duluth's Fond du Lac neighborhood, Judith O'neill's home looks much the same as it did after volunteers gutted the flood soaked walls and floor. A contractor just started work last week rebuilding the home.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

"The elderly are the main ones," Moreland said. "They just don't want to leave their home. That is their home. And there are some struggling to get by."

This summer, relief officials hope to get help for those who still need it, including some who were reluctant or didn't know to ask for assistance and those who have just discovered damage after the spring thaw.

Disaster case managers still have 361 open cases. Volunteers are expected to help rebuild about 100 of those homes this summer.

A move by state legislators to transfer about $3 million in unspent loan money into a new fund to help low-income flood victims could help. But some are still frustrated with the pace of recovery.

"The whole process has been so frustrating, long, and now here it is a year later, and we're just starting to get some work done and just trying to figure it out ourselves," said Judith O'Neill, who lives in the Fond du Lac neighborhood in far southwest Duluth.

A contractor is ripping out ceiling tiles O'Neill's home, which her parents bought in 1953. It is still completely gutted. Her state loan only recently came through, and work just began last week.

Recovery officials preach patience, noting that a "long-term" recovery is just that. While they expect most homeowners to finish rebuilding this summer, officials say that for some, the process will drag out for three to five years.

"As the building season ends this summer I think we'll feel a great sense of accomplishment of how much has been done," Carlton County Long Term Recovery Manager Drew Digby said. "But there will still be work to do."