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MN faces long flood recovery

Water sat four to five feet deep in the far northern reaches of Minnesota last July.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | ROSEAU, Minn. | January 23, 2003

"We're running into a lot of sick families."

—Monica Burkel

Water sat four to five feet deep in the far northern reaches of Minnesota last July.

Crops were destroyed. Basements were submerged. Half the population of Roseau more than 1,200 people was evacuated.

Nearly six months later, some Minnesotans are still feeling the effects of the flooding. Some have left behind their homes, and others are being sickened by mold that overtaking their basements.

The far north wasn't the only area to be affected by floodwaters. Wright County, about an hour's drive west of Minneapolis, also incurred flood damage that wasn't as readily noted.

Roseau County, situated along the Canadian border, is traversed by one medium-size river (the Roseau) and lies on the shore of a sizeable lake (Lake of the Woods).

"It really is the land of the lakes," said Tom Davis, disaster response and recovery liaison for Church World Service (CWS). And many of these lakes, he said, overflowed.

Roseau County was designated a disaster area, and got Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding, while some of the neighboring areas, which were also flooded, did not see this federal assistance.

"In flooding, the damage can be hidden," Davis said. After floodwaters recede, and visible damage has been cleaned up, outward appearances can seem fine. But houses can be overrun with invisible damage such as mold and rotting.

Most of this damage occurs underground, in basements, cellars and crawl spaces.

Davis said the interfaith recovery efforts here will get a boost with a $5,000 grant from CWS, which will help pay for administrative costs.

Monica Burkel, executive director of the North Border Interfaith Coalition in Buffalo, Minn., is working with about 150 families in Roseau and surrounding counties, and many of her clients are experiencing health problems because of mold lingering in their homes.

"We're running into a lot of sick families," Burkel said.

Two families have definitely been overrun by mold. Members of both families have gotten sick, and both families have moved out of their homes until decontamination begins.

One family was living along the Canadian border, a woman with five kids, all of whom were experiencing breathing problems. In December they had to move out of their moldy home, and the local interfaith group help put them up in a local hotel.

One woman's health problems were severe enough to cause her to drop out of school, Burkel said. The woman, a nurse, was going to school, but began experiencing neurological problems-a symptom of severe mold exposure-"she just couldn't think," so she dropped out.

A lot more "have mold that shouldn't be in their homes," but short of the level that causes health problems, she said.

But Burkel is particularly concerned about the coming of spring, which will mean the explosion of mold in crawlspaces under homes that were flooded.

The crawlspace "is where the mold starts," she said. "It's definitely going to get a lot worse in the spring, especially with the mold. We're just looking for more funding to help these people. I don't know what's going to happen, but I know it's going to be bad."

Burkel's group has also have been doing a lot of physical work-framing up walls, painting, sheet-rocking, installing electrical wiring, putting in plumbing and cleaning up mold.

A total of 47 families in Roseau County are living in FEMA trailers their houses were either destroyed or severely damaged by the flooding.

Her group is also helping families with heating bills a real survival necessity in snow-bound Minnesota.

Burkel's group has also distributed donated food-nearly a ton was collected by Christmas 2002. But what people really wanted were linens and bedding-towels, washcloths, even vacuum cleaners stuff that gets stored in basements and easily destroyed during a flood.

"It's amazing what you store in your basement," Burkel said.

Many people are still sleeping on floors and air mattresses, so her group is working to buy beds.

Wright County damage 'late in being discovered'

Wright County also has an extensive long-term recovery operation, which was also recently awarded a CWS grant this one for $3,000, Davis said.

"In Wright County there was pretty extensive damage that was late in being discovered," Davis said. "Even six months later they're still finding need for cleanup."

Wright County received about four to five maximum grants from FEMA, but by early September 2002, only one of those grants had been processed.

"There was a lot more damage than what we were aware of," Davis said.

Mel Armbruster, project manager of the $500,000 FEMA grant for the county, agreed with Davis's assessment, and called the problem here "a silent disaster."

While flooding in northwestern Minnesota got a lot of attention last July, flooding in his county was less noticeable, though just as damaging.

Even people in the county seem to have forgotten about the damage, he said. But a summer's worth of heavy rain caused flood damage to houses that weren't even near lakes or streams.

Armbruster said he and his workers are helping a woman whose home sits atop a hill. The roof of her home lacked gutters, and the steady flow of rain eventually seeped inside, collecting in her basement.

Armbruster, a laid-off computer maintenance manager for Sieman's, now directs teams of other "dislocated workers," who fix up homes affected by flooding, and who get paid an hourly wage, courtesy of the FEMA grant money.

Armbruster and his crews work in conjunction with Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services, and Nechama, a Jewish disaster response group.

"We go out there and rectify whatever's wrong," Armbruster said. They tear out moldy carpets and sheetrock, fix bad plumbing, and reinstall electrical wiring.

While the workers' salaries are paid by FEMA, and the tools are supplied by the charity organizations, the homeowners pay for the materials. But in many cases, he said, the money that homeowners spend on materials comes from FEMA or charity grants.

"We don't improve anything," he said. "We put it back to where it was before."

Armbruster and his teams have finished more than 25 homes, and they have about 20 more orders in the works.

Mold has also proven a nasty health problem in Wright County, he said.

He said that a child in one family was so sick that he missed weeks of school. Once Armbruster's teams cleaned the mold out of the house, the child recovered almost overnight.

The child's mother told Armbruster, "You can't believe how my son feels so much better, and I'm not hacking and coughing anymore."

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