Flooded-out homeowners near Duluth face limited options a year later

Inspecting a basement
Jenny Kane, an all hazard planner with the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, surveys a basement in Duluth after last year's floods. Homeowners across the region have dealt with a year of frustrating attempts to rebuild and plan for the future.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

In a way, Jan and Denny Gertzen were lucky. They were among the very few in northeast Minnesota who had flood insurance before the Moose Horn River rose nearly 20 feet last year and submerged their retirement home in four feet of filthy floodwater.

A year later, their house is entirely rebuilt, with new pine paneling and a sparkling kitchen with new appliances. It's a beautiful home again, exactly like it was.

But the couple is preparing to leave, even though in their hearts, they want to stay.

"This is unsellable land, so if we decide to stay, we're stuck here for the rest of our lives," Denny Gertzen said. "I just don't want to be."

Click for before-after views of northeast Minnesota

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The disaster unfolded, moment by moment, on our live blog

A year ago today, residents in northeastern Minnesota woke to flooded basements, washed-out roads and sinkholes -- the result of torrential rains that would drop up to 10 inches of rain on the region.

One of the hardest hit areas was the Gertzen's neighborhood of Cathedral Pines in Sturgeon Lake, an area of 18 homes and cabins nestled in an old red pine plantation along the river. Once dream homes for many of the owners, the properties about an hour's drive south of Duluth are now a source of anxiety. Residents struggle to decide whether to stay or leave.

Jan Gertzen stands outside her home
Jan Gertzen stands outside her home in the Cathedral Pines neighborhood of Sturgeon Lake on June 12, 2013. Jan and her husband Denny have decided to accept a federal and state buyout of their property, rather than risk getting flooded again. "Even this spring, I was watching the river go up and down about four times,' said Denny Gertzen. "It's hard on my nerves!"
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

"Even this spring, I was watching this river go up and down about four times," said Gertzen, who worries that another flood will come. "It's hard on my nerves!"

Three months before last June's flooding, the Federal Emergency Management Agency redrew the region's flood maps, placing the homes were placed in a flood plain. But most of the homeowners had no idea. The city of Sturgeon Lake never notified them.

Since then, FEMA and the state Department of Natural Resources have agreed to buy all 18 properties for their pre-flood value.

Across northeast Minnesota, local governments are receiving grants to buy 74 homes, at a cost to the state of $5.6 million. The houses are being demolished, to mitigate the risk of future flooding.

"I don't think any of us are going to want to be up here when they start tearing down," said Shirley Klossner, a neighbor of the Gertzens.

Klossner and her husband Bill saw their house nearly destroyed in the flood. They escaped in a 12-foot motor boat. The water rose so fast, the only thing they rescued was a laptop computer.

They gutted their home, but didn't have insurance money to rebuild.

Since January, the Klossners have lived in their daughter's home in Forest Lake since January. They are accepting the buyout.

Bill Klossner said his dream home has literally turned into a nightmare.

"I started having recurring, cold sweat dreams, where I was actually hearing the water come up through the floor boards," he said.

Both retired couples say the recovery process didn't work for them. They say communication with relief officials was slow. At their age they weren't interested in low interest federal loans with a 30-year payback. They didn't qualify for state aid.

Shirley Klossner said she and her husband didn't learn about the buyout option until October.

All summer we were scrambling to survive and figure out what we were going to do.

"All summer we were scrambling to survive and figure out what we were going to do."

Relief officials acknowledge the process can seem agonizingly slow for flood victims. But they say the recovery is on par or even moving along faster than for similar past disasters.

About half of the roughly 1,900 homeowners who suffered significant damage have completely repaired their homes. Hundreds more have recovery plans in place, said Drew Digby, Long Term Recovery Manager for Carlton County.

"We've gone amazing distances," he said, "but we still have a lot of work left to do."

Of the 18 properties in Cathedral Pines, so far only three homeowners have decided to stay and rebuild. Among them are Bill and Judy Koch, who still don't have running water or a furnace. Last winter they warmed their home with six space heaters.

Judy Koch said they can't afford to take the buyout because it is not enough for them to leave and start over. She said the payment would barely cover the existing mortgage on their flood-damaged house.

Bill and Shirley Klossner stand outside their home
Bill and Shirley Klossner stand outside their home in Cathedral Pines. The waters rose so fast last June they had to escape in a 12 foot motorboat, only rescuing their laptop. Their house is gutted; they've lived with their daughter in Forest Lake since January. They plan to accept a government buyout of their home. The house will be razed and permanently taken off Sturgeon Lake's tax rolls.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Instead, they're going to rebuild. They hope to have their home fixed up by the fall. But Judy Koch knows it will be a different neighborhood.

"It is going to be a huge void," she said. "We will miss all the neighbors. But, to be honest, I think that we're going to be fine, and I'm not worried that the property value is going to go completely in the tank.

"We're not concerned about that at all, because this was an absolute freak of nature when the flood happened."

Sturgeon Lake will lose nearly 8.6 percent of its property tax base because of the buyouts. Moose Lake and Barnum are also each losing five properties.

That puts small towns in a tough situation, Carlton County Long Term Recovery Manager Drew Digby said.

"There's often no right answers on do you pull the house out of the tax base or do you leave it in, with a higher risk of flooding," he said.

Cathedral Pines homeowners have another month to officially decide whether to sell their homes. They want to finally move on from the nightmare of a year ago.

"We want our lives back," Jan Gertzen said.