Thousands hit by Midwest flooding

Findlay, Ohio, sees worst flooding since 1913. Volunteers sought.

BY HEATHER MOYER | FINDLAY, Ohio | August 23, 2007

Flooding washed out or closed hundreds of roads across Minnesota, Wisconsin and Ohio.
Credit: Brad Horn, National Weather Service

Flooding inundated thousands of homes and farms across southwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: National Weather Service La Crosse Office

Volunteers are being sought to assist in cleanup efforts in northern Ohio after severe flooding inundated the region, the Ohio Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) has announced.

The storm system that drenched Ohio was also responsible for deadly flooding in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, where thousands of homes have been flooded. Powerful storms raked northern Illinois on Thursday afternoon with strong winds and heavy rains causing damage and some flooding.

At least 12 storm-related deaths have been reported across the Midwest, including three people who were electrocuted by lightning at a bus stop in Madison, Wis. More than a dozen others were reported killed by the remnants of Tropical Storm Erin in Texas and Oklahoma.

Mary Woodward, chairman of the Ohio VOAD, said volunteers will be needed Labor Day weekend to help thousands of affected residents in nine Ohio counties clean up after historic flooding. Donations of cleaning supplies and money were also needed, especially as the flooding may get worse after forecasted weekend rains.

"The only thing we have going for us now is that the ground was not saturated before this flood hit, but with the rain this weekend it very well could be," Woodward said. "We may have very severe problems come Monday."

A state of emergency has been declared for Hancock, Allen, Crawford, Hardin, Putnam, Richland, Seneca, Van Wert and Wyandot counties.

The city of Findlay in Hancock County experienced its worst flooding since 1913, officials said. More than five city blocks remained underwater Thursday after torrential rains swamped the area earlier this week. The Blanchard River, which crested Wednesday in Findlay at more than 7 feet over flood stage, had begun to recede.

Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland was scheduled to visit Findlay on Thursday along with Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, R. David Paulison, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

Other towns in northern Ohio were also hard hit, including Shelby, Ottawa, Bucyrus and Mansfield.

Woodward said the Ohio VOAD was responding to those in need as well as helping conduct damage assessments. The public was still not being allowed back into many areas, she said, so damage estimates from those places - including Findlay - may not be available until late next week. She said she expected a massive cleanup operation would then begin.

Woodward, who also serves as the Lutheran Disaster Response coordinator in Ohio, was checking in with affected churches in the area. She said she has been unable to contact some due to high water or lack of phones and electricity. At least three Lutheran churches remain underwater, she reported.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance deployed members of its national response team to the area.

Flood watches and flash flood warnings remained in effect for most of northern Ohio. Much of the area was also expected to see thunderstorms throughout the weekend.

In southeastern Minnesota, 4,200 homes were flooded in a six-county area, according to estimates from the American Red Cross and state Department of Emergency Management. They reported 256 homes were destroyed and another 338 had major damage. Some 475 other homes remained inaccessible.

FEMA representatives and state officials were in the affected counties conducting preliminary damage estimates. The state will seek a federal disaster declaration.

A state of emergency was in effect for Fillmore, Houston, Olmsted, Steele, Wabasha and Winona counties.

Members of the Minnesota VOAD held conference calls Wednesday and Thursday to coordinate a response. They said many of the flooded areas were not yet ready for volunteers due to contamination or remaining high water. Some cities, however, have asked for volunteer cleanup teams, they said.

Nechama Jewish Disaster Response deployed cleanup volunteers to Stockton this week and worked with United Methodist Church volunteers and local Methodist pastors. An American Red Cross worker in Eyota, Minn., said that 97 percent of the homes in that small Olmsted County town were affected by the flooding. Eyota has a population of about 1,700.

Representatives from the local United Church of Christ conference and Church World Service (CWS) encouraged various faith groups to check in with local clergy to encourage them to start thinking about long-term recovery. CWS offered assistance to those establishing long-term recovery committees.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance also contacted affected presbyteries in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa.

Winona County set up a supply distribution site for residents and a city of Winona church held an informational meeting for flooded-affected residents Thursday afternoon. One local organization was gathering school supplies for children who lost everything in the flood and was accepting donations of school supplies at various county businesses.

The Minnesota Department of Public Health warned some residents to not drink the water, including those in hard hit Rushford. Health officials were also answering health-related questions via a hotline and advising the public on safe flood cleanup procedures.

Residents in southwest Wisconsin were trying to clean up as well. The Wisconsin Emergency Management Agency estimated that 39 homes were destroyed, 277 suffered major damage and 1,016 had minor damage.

Officials said they expected those numbers to rise as assessments continued. So far, damages to homes and businesses totaled more than $13 million across the region. Damage to public infrastructure was estimated at $31 million.

Significant damage was reported in Sauk, Richland, La Crosse, Crawford and Vernon counties. Damages were also reported in Columbia, Dane, Green, Iowa, Kenosha, Jefferson, Lafayette, Racine, Rock and Walworth counties.

With more rain in the forecast for southern Wisconsin through the weekend, additional flooding and damage was expected. Flood warnings and flash flood watches were posted for the region.

Pam Brownlee, district disaster coordinator for the Wisconsin Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, was meeting with local churches around the flooded towns of Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills to coordinate a response.

She called the damage "devastating" and said the flooding came up so quickly for the residents that they had no time to prepare or save anything. Volunteer cleanup teams, cleaning supplies and monetary donations will be needed for the recovery, she said.

The week's flooding also impacted Iowa. Residents along several streets in Fort Dodge were evacuated due to high water. Emergency workers were also concerned about a weakened levee on the Des Moines River, which they were attempting to shore up.

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