Floods damage hundreds of homes

WI, MN, volunteers begin massive clean-up following days of floooding

BY JOHN PAPE | MINNEAPOLIS | September 26, 2010

"You work and work and work, filling sandbag after sandbag, and the water just keeps rising and rising. Itís like fighting an endless battle"

—James Sanders

Hundreds of Minnesota and Wisconsin residents remained out of their homes over the weekend as floodwaters across the region began to slowly recede.

Communities across southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin saw rivers and streams rise quickly after a slow-moving line of storms dumped more than 6 inches of rain across the region from Wednesday through much of Friday. In the small Minnesota town of Amboy, 10.86 inches fell as the storm system marched through.

While floodwaters in some areas began to recede over the weekend, allowing residents to return to their homes and begin the clean-up, evacuations remained in effect for communities like Hammond, Mandelia, St. Clair and Zumbro Falls.

In hard-hit Owatonna, a city of about 24,000 residents 65 miles south of Minneapolis, more than 70 homes had to be evacuated. On Sunday, Steele County Emergency Management Director Mike Johnson watched water levels begin to recede on the Straight River and Maple and Turtle creeks. He said he was cautiously optimistic evacuees could return home within the next day or two.

The oldest part of Owatonna, including much of the downtown area, flooded because of its location in a low-lying area adjacent to the Straight River. Johnson said several major streets near downtown remained closed.

Clean-up kits were being made available at a flood recovery center the city established at the Owatonna Community Center.

Volunteer emergency worker James Sanders spent two days filling and stacking sandbags in an effort to hold back the Straight River. He called the rising waters “relentless.”

“You work and work and work, filling sandbag after sandbag, and the water just keeps rising and rising. It’s like fighting an endless battle,” Sanders said. “You stack sandbags and think you’re gaining ground, then a few minutes later the river is lapping at the top again.”

He said the slowly receding water is giving weary rescue workers hope.

“A couple of people actually cheered when we realized the river level had gone down a little bit. Now we’re all holding our breath, hoping the rain will hold off and let the water go down a little more,” Sanders said.

About 50 miles to the east, all 200 residents of tiny Zumbro Falls remained evacuated over the weekend. Located along the Zumbro River in Wabasha County, Zumbro Falls has a history of serious flooding.

Downstream in the town of Oronoco, the Zumbro River flooded the main bridge leading into the community. Olmsted County Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Torgerson said at least 50 homes in the town of less than 900 people had been flooded.

“We have an estimated 50 homes that have been damaged and the residents evacuated. This situation is still not stable and we’re monitoring developments in Oronoco and at the Lake Shady Dam,” Torgerson said.

The Lake Shady Dam, also called the Oronoco Dam, is located on the middle fork of the Zumbro River on the east side of Oronoco. The northern approach of the 165-foot dam began to wash away on Friday as the River rose. As of Sunday, the dam structure, built in 1937, remained intact, but the wash-out will force drivers to make a five-mile detour around the area until repairs can be made.

With hundreds of Minnesota families affected by the flooding, the Minnesota Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church has stepped forward to help with the recovery. Catherine Earl, executive secretary for U.S. Disaster Response for the United Methodist Committee on Relief said teams were moving into action.

Earl said even as the rain continued to fall, teams were preparing to go to work. The early response teams are specially trained to provide clean-up efforts after first responders have done their work.

Rev. Heather Klason, who serves as the conference’s disaster response coordinator, said the Minnesota damage was widespread.

“Communities are still under water and some of the communities have not been cleared for faith-based groups to go into,” Klason said. “Only trained members of the Minnesota Conference Disaster Response Team and Nechama, a Jewish response team, are able to provide this kind of early response clean-up work.”

Across the state line, a number of communities in Wisconsin also struggled against rising floodwaters.

An estimated 350 homes in the western Wisconsin town of Arcadia, population 2,400, were evacuated Thursday as the rain swollen Trempealeau River threatened to top its levees, and a pair of creeks bordering the city poured into the downtown area. By late Friday evening when it was clear the Trempealeau would be contained by the levee system, most residents returned and business owners began to clean up the mess.

Emergency Management Coordinator Dan Schreiner said the threat to Arcadia had passed.

“The threat of flooding is over, at least for now. This weekend, we will be assessing the extent of the damage,” Schreiner said.

At the height of the flooding in Wisconsin, flood warnings were issued for more than a dozen counties in the western part of the state.

In Clark County, emergency management officials closed a number of major roads in the southern part of the county at least through the weekend and issued a “red alert” for areas downstream of the Hatfield Dam. The warning was issued because all floodgates had been opened to relieve pressure on the dam.

To the south, about 80 homes and several apartment buildings were evacuated in Black River Falls as the Black River began to rise on Friday. Jackson County Sheriff Duane Waldera said more than 50 roads in his county had already been closed and he expected more areas to be affected as floodwaters continued to rise through the weekend.

“We expect most all areas along the Trempealeau, Black and East Fork (rivers) will see some flooding as the rivers rise. We are anticipating the worst,” Waldera said.

More than half a foot of rain fell in Black River Falls in just over 24 hours, causing the Black River to rise from 38 feet to 52 feet in a 24-hour period. The Wisconsin State Emergency Operations Center predicted “almost record flooding” in the Black River Falls area.

Jackson County officials evacuated the West Arbutus Campground along Lake Arbutus near Hatfield on Thursday because of failing culverts.

The governors of both Minnesota and Wisconsin declared states of emergency in areas affected by the flooding.

While most of the high water in Wisconsin is expected to recede over the next several days, Minnesota may see levels continue to rise on the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers through the early part of the week, according to the National Weather Service.

Also, saturated fields across much of southern Minnesota are expected to delay the season’s final harvest. The added moisture could damage some of the state’s soybean crop, a state agriculture official warned.

David Westphal with the Minnesota Farm Service Agency said it will be several weeks before farmers can get into the fields to harvest. While the corn crop will likely be undamaged, too much moisture could cause the soybean pods to open, resulting in the loss of the bean.

With hundreds of people displaced by the flooding, the American Red Cross has opened emergency shelters in both states.

Southwestern Minnesota Red Cross Chapter Executive Director Joyce Jacobs said chapters in both states have opened shelters and are providing meals and comfort items to residents forced from their homes.

“More than 70 people took refuge in Red Cross shelters,” Jacobs said. “The Red Cross is working with local and state officials in both Wisconsin and Minnesota to ensure help is available for those who need it.”

At the Red Cross respite center in Truman, workers served more than 350 hot meals and snacks to both residents and rescue workers in the first 24 hours of operation.

As floodwaters recede, the Red Cross will also deploy volunteers to do disaster assessment in the neighborhoods affected by the flooding.

The Salvation Army has also mobilized in southern Minnesota, sending volunteers into affected communities to help with sandbagging efforts.

In addition to the volunteer efforts, Salvation Army staff sent five mobile feeding units into flooded areas to provide food and water to rescue workers and evacuees. The canteens were dispatched from the Twin Cities, Mankato, Rochester and Albert Lea, where a Salvation Army command center has been established.

The Salvation Army will also be providing free cleanup kits for people with flooded homes or businesses.

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