The weekend started like any other summer weekend. Winona County campgrounds were full of eager adventure seekers and area residents were settling in to another beautiful Minnesota weekend. But suddenly, and without notice, beautiful turned to disastrous. Five years ago this weekend, the serene small-town charm of communities scattered throughout the county was ripped apart at the seams when torrential rains moved in, creating flash flooding for miles. Within a matter of hours, houses, cars, memories, and lives were swept away by a deadly influx of water.
2012 photos by Emily Buss
Before and after photos of damage during the 2007 flood.
Severe flooding on Sunday, August 19, 2007, devastated parts of Houston, Fillmore and Winona counties, which were caught in a weather system that covered the entire northern half of the United States. In what was dubbed a 500-year storm, 17 inches of rain fell from the sky during the weekend storm, leaving gaping holes in roads, cars submerged under several feet of water and houses and apartment complexes damaged or demolished.
Nearly 1,500 homes were affected in this area, thousands were stranded, and seven people were killed. Victor and Joyce Gensmer of Winona, John and Shirley Micheel of Lewiston, area resident Jered Lorenz, David Ask of Houston, and David Blackburn of Spring Grove lost their lives as a result of the flood.
Five years later, those affected still ache from the events that took place that August weekend and while forgetting isn’t possible, rebuilding is.
The news of the Southeast Minnesota flood hit the airwaves within hours of the event and flashed across the United States. After receiving word, President George W. Bush declared the counties surrounding Winona a federal disaster area, giving the go-ahead for almost immediate access to $35 million in state flood relief.
Surveying Rushford a week after the flood ravaged the area, Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) Southeast Minnesota Representative Kevin Kelleher said he remembers how emotional it was to see a town he frequented as a child swallowed by a large swath of water.
“I grew up nearby in Houston County and worked for many years as a county commissioner, so to see a flood right next door was really personal for me,” Kelleher said.
DEED gave Kelleher the job of tending to the flood issues in this area. He chaired a Minnesota recovery task force and became intimately involved with the recovery efforts in Rushford. Kelleher worked with many area businesses to secure forgivable loans with almost zero interest to help businesses get back on their feet.
“In one sense, the damage and emotional shock of what happened is really devastating,” Kelleher said. “But on the other hand, Minnesota really stepped up and helped a city recover from a difficult thing.”
Rushford Mayor Chris Hallum said there was never a doubt in his mind that the city would rebuild.
“Folks knew we would come back; it was the details that took time,” Hallum said. “The people of Rushford sacrificed everything to stay, to rebuild their homes and businesses, to continue their lives here. Clearly Rushford was worth fighting for.”
It took upwards of $17 million of FEMA dollars and small business administration loans to get the town back up and running, Hallum said. The city instituted the Tri-City Business Retention and Expansion Project, and business in Rushford is growing.
A few lots still sit empty in the town and parts of the landscape have changed. Some businesses have relocated, and others have expanded. Downtown Rushford has returned to business as usual, Hallum said, but it wasn’t without years of hard work.
“People this tough and courageous gave me the office of Mayor and that is a great honor,” Hallum said.
North in little Stockton, recovery was a bit faster. State inspectors arrived on the scene almost immediately and began assessing where the focus of relief efforts should be.
Stockton Mayor Chris Parker said it was a particular pair of vans carrying fire-jumpers eager to pay it forward that really got the ball rolling.
“These two vans pulled into town from Idaho less than 24 hours after the flooding and I clearly recall one man said to me that Minnesota fire-jumpers had been the first to arrive in Idaho to help them and ‘no one was going to beat us to Minnesota to help’,” Parker said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Droves of volunteers from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, and elsewhere, made their way to Stockton to help pick up the pieces. At one point, Parker said the town had to divert volunteers to parts of the area that were in need of more help.
“Everyone in town was so motivated and determined to bounce back,” Parker said. “My only concern relative to loss was for those who lost everything and whether or not they would return.”
Succumbing to a sad reality, Parker said many of those people did not return to Stockton. Severely damaged homes were bought out and turned into city green space. In an effort to breathe new life into the spaces, trees and native wildflowers have been planted. Since 2007, a new municipal water system has been built and the North Broadway Bridge was replaced. Business in Stockton is back up and running, Parker said.
“I’m very impressed by the residents,” he said. “People came together with neighbors and complete strangers to help do whatever was needed.”
In Winona, residents were dealing with flooded basements, overflowing streams and buckling roadways. Highway 17 was cracked wide open during the heavy downpour, killing a Winona couple.
Valley Motors and Fairway Woods Apartments on the east side of town, and LaCanne Park and Lakeside Manor Apartments in Goodview were hit the worst.
Alerting residents in the early morning hours after the rain fell, Lakeside Manor complex manager Reuben Rayfield risked life and limb to get residents in the 150 apartments and townhomes to safety.
Dozen of cars in both apartment complexes were submerged in water up to the windows.
LaCanne Park, a summer hotspot for families, was completely engulfed. Lake Goodview became a floating pond for garbage and debris.
Winona Mayor Jerry Miller said while most of the central city escaped with minor damage, he was concerned for residents on the East End and in Goodview.
“It was important that those people got what they needed during that time,” Miller said. “I remember we set up booths so people could come get supplies and we worked with Goodview to get our sweepers out there to help.
“What I really remember most is how everybody came together to help out those in need,” Miller said. “We pulled together and that made me proud.”
In the face of tragedy, community solidarity was alive and well. Neighbors stood side by side to overcome a devastating disaster and courageously rebuilt their neighborhoods, even if it meant starting from the ground up.
‘Let go, let God.’
Probably the most famous photo from the 2007 flood is of a white ranch house awkwardly perched atop the DM&E railroad tracks, dangerously close the edge of a ravine. Bonnie Oldham’s home, built by her husband, Roger, was filled to the rafters with memories.
Oldham and her husband, who were taking care of her mother after her father’s recent death, were already dealing with loss when shortly before midnight on August 18, 2007, their home was swept away.
“We were in big trouble then,” Oldham said, reflecting on the night that changed her entire life. “The house got real crashed up. I can remember seeing the water rolling under the house. Before we knew it, we were on the roof watching the trees go by.”
Oldham, with superhuman strength, was able to grab her husband, who suffers from heart problems, and her mother, and get them on the roof. With just seconds to spare, the three huddled together in the pounding rain just before the water ripped their home from the foundation, and sent it a quarter mile down the road.
Oldham said it was so dark that night that she didn’t remember what all they passed until the next morning.
“It just wasn’t real,” she said when she first saw the home resting on the tracks. “It was bad for me but worse for my husband. He built this home with his first wife. I pass the place where the house sat just about every day. I see things that I didn’t remember that night and recall things now that I didn’t then. It was just so scary.”
For 18 months after the disaster, Oldham and her family stayed in a small FEMA trailer. Every day, she said she would work to settle debts with the bank in an effort to pay off her mortgage.
“During the recovery process, in order to get the help we needed, we were told we had to pay off all our debts,” Oldham said. “I remember Roger was sitting in the FEMA trailer one day and said there wasn’t going to be any help for us.”
With the dedicated work of Eastwood Bank, the Oldhams were able to participate in a home buyout that gave them the money to repay nearly $30,000 to FEMA. But, even with all the loans paid, Oldham and her family were still at square one.
“We didn’t even have money for a down payment to rebuild,” she said. “We were left with nothing to restart with.”
With no home, Oldham, her husband, and her mother moved into their garage, which had made it through the flood. Throughout the last five years, Oldham said they have made a home out of their garage, but also spend time in her parents’ farm house on top of the ridge.
Oldham has been working to complete an application for a Rural Development Housing Loan in the hopes of finally rebuilding her home.
“We had a contractor come out to the land last year and mark it up to show where everything would go,” she said. “I even have the blueprints of the modular home we want. We got the land all cleared up and everything is ready to go.”
But with all the recent health complications her husband has been facing this year, the loan company said their family was too big a risk and they were denied.
“Lots of this could have been done differently, but I guess that’s just the way it goes,” Oldham said. “You can’t go around blaming everyone else for what has happened.”
But even with so much heartbreak in the last five years, Oldham said she does have at least two things to celebrate—her two new grandchildren. Last October, Oldham became a grandmother to a little girl and another grandchild is expected very soon.
“You just have to keep going on, no matter what happens,” Oldham said. “You can have all the money in the world and a huge house, but nothing compares to your family. At some point, you just have to let go and let God.”
In the weeks and months following the flood, city and state officials began reexamining emergency preparedness plans and protocol to better handle major disasters.
In the 2011 updated emergency preparedness guide, sirens in Winona now have a distinct warning tone that will alert residents of the threat of flash flooding. A rapid warble of high and low tones signifies the danger of flash flooding is near. During the 2007 flood, no sirens were sounded in Winona because there wasn’t a specific flood siren.
However, the city did have a flood readiness plan on file that earned city planners much praise at the annual Minnesota Association of Floodplain Managers conference in 2008. The plan allowed for the speedy delivery of federal aid applications giving Winona a head start on recovery efforts. This plan earned the county the 2008 annual award for disaster readiness.
Rushford, one of the hardest hit areas, has also taken steps to reevaluate their plan. But, “the main focus of staff for the last several years has been the FEMA-mandated levee re-certification,” Mayor Hallum said.
As part of the re-certification, a series of relief wells, trenches and drains will help to keep the levees from being compromised. Power poles, trees and other objects near the levee have been removed.
“The permanent easement at the foot of the levee must remain clear,” Hallum said. “But more must be done.”
The city is currently looking at what more can be done to hold back rain water in the nearby Rush Pine Watershed.
In the two years following the flood, Stockton conducted an engineering study to determine water mitigation opportunities for the future.
“The preferred project would be substantial and expensive, while only mitigating the expanse of any substantial water flow,” Mayor Parker said.
A plan to add recreational space in town as part of a mitigation plan is also being discussed by city officials, but is still in the “very preliminary” stages, Parker said.
“We can only prepare and press for solutions farther upstream,” he said. “The convergence of two streams in Stockton from two separate valleys makes any absolute solution in town difficult.”
With the 2007 and 2012 calendars coinciding, this weekend marks five years, to the day, since roads turned to rivers. This weekend is also a reminder of how resilient the human spirit is. When the water crested higher, communities became stronger. In the face of an unforgettable tragedy, the need to continue on and never, ever give up is undeniable.