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Southern Minn. struggles to clean up, dry out from historic rains

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Kyle Collins sweeps water out of the hockey rink.
Kyle Collins, the arena manager for Waseca's new hockey rink, sweeps water out of the building on Thursday afternoon. The arena was scheduled to open in a few days but Collins said the flooding will push back the opening date by about a month.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Mary Ostendorf woke in the Thursday morning darkness to find floodwaters creeping within 30 feet or so of her Waseca home. It was a bad sign.

"I could see like a shine on the backyard," she recalled. "So I turned the lights on and the water was clear up to my fire pit. Then I went down in the basement and everything was floating in water." 

Two days of historic rains had delivered a terrible mess. "I put my whole sewing room down in the basement," Ostendorf said. "Everything I've got is wet, sewing machines are ruined.  My washer and dryer doesn't work now. Everything's ruined. Just everything."  

Two cars parked along a flooded street in Waseca.
Two cars parked along the flooded street of 14th Ave. NW in Waseca.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Stories like Ostendorf's were all too easy to find Thursday in Waseca and across central and southern Minnesota. Storms saturated the region, closing major highways, stranding motorists and forcing some residents to leave their flooded homes.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation used snow plows at one point to push rain water off Interstate 94 in Maple Grove. 

In some towns, officials struggled with inundated wastewater treatment plants. In Wanamingo, in Goodhue County, a pedestrian bridge that was raised more than 5 feet after a major flood in 2010 was under water Thursday.

Steele County declared a state of emergency as it worked to cope with flood damage. The city of Faribault was poised to do the same. Steele County officials warned residents not to drive through or go near standing or rising water, saying it might contain hazards, be unstable or be moving faster than people realize. 

In southeastern Minnesota, a mudslide that brought down trees shut down part of U.S. Highway 61 just south of Winona, although MnDOT said that was cleaned up relatively quickly.

Wanamingo employees clear water from sewage plant
Wanamingo Public Works employees use a pump to clear flood water from the sewage plant near the Zumbro River Thursday.
Jerry Olson for MPR News

Waseca, though, was perhaps the hardest hit in a region that rang up records for rain Wednesday and Thursday. The 10.2 inches at the University of Minnesota Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca was the largest two-day rainfall ever recorded there, eclipsing the historic rainfall in 2010, according to the Twin Cities National Weather Service office. 

County officials there also declared an emergency and plan to seek federal assistance for the cleanup. If Waseca got zero precipitation for the rest of the year, the town would still wind up nearly 13 inches above normal for the year, the weather service added.

Residents said the torrential rain coming from a series of thunderstorms that passed over the area through the night was remarkable for its consistency.

It did a lot of damage in Ostendorf's neighborhood. As pumps worked to get rid of the water, she and other family members began hauling out soaked items.

Her daughter, Jamie Willaert, helped with the cleanup. She'd hauled several plastic totes out to the garage that were found floating in the basement.  Although they were sealed with a cover, water had still managed to find its way inside.  

Jamie Willaert spreads out family photos to dry.
Jamie Willaert spreads out family photos on the floor of her mother's garage in Waseca to dry on Thursday. The basement of the house flooded after torrential rains soaked the region, soaking the pictures.
Mark Steil | MPR News

The moisture soaked dozens of photos, a catalog of nearly 50 years of family life.

"They're pictures of myself and my sisters growing up, some pictures of my parents, pictures of my dad back from when he was in the war from Vietnam," said Willaert from Owatonna, another hard hit town.  "Some of them are pretty old."

She spread the photos on the concrete floor of the garage, hoping to save as many as possible.

City and county officials don't have a detailed damage assessment yet, but they say many homes have suffered mainly basement damage. In a few cases basement walls collapsed. 

So far, no personal injuries have been reported but two nursing home were affected by the floodwaters, said Waseca County Emergency Management Director Nancy Lageson. 

Sandbaggers at a nursing home in Janesville.
Sandbaggers worked to keep the water from a nursing home in Janesville.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

At the nursing home in Janesville, "they were able to sandbag, and they got the sandbags in place enough that they could just stop the water from affecting the whole nursing home," she added.  

No one there had to be evacuated. But in the town of New Richland some 44 nursing home residents were moved out because of the flood threat. Some were taken in by family members, others were transferred to a nursing home in Waseca. 

Lageson said when all the flooding damage is tallied, she expects repairs to roads and other county infrastructure will be among the county's biggest immediate needs.

"I know that there are several culverts they were talking about that were out; a possible bridge," she said. "There's different areas where even asphalt on roadways has been removed, and pushed aside."

The good news at this point is that it doesn't look like the region will get another round of similarly heavy rain. However, the weather service late Thursday said  the unsettled weather would continue and up to 1 inch of rain was possible this weekend.

Transportation department officials say even a little bit more rain can still cause some big problems, particularly when it comes to mudslides along the Mississippi and in bluff country of southeast Minnesota. The ground is just so saturated at this point that additional mudslides can happen as well as downed trees. 

Authorities are keeping close tabs now on rivers and lakes downstream from some of the hardest hit areas.

In Austin, for instance, the Cedar River tends to rise after a big rain. One official there who said they're delivering sand and bags now to some residents who live near the river or along the Turtle Creek tributary, anticipating the next, wet chapter.

Click here for more photos of the flood that walloped southern Minnesota.

MPR News reporter Catharine Richert contributed reporting from Rochester.