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AUSTIN, MINN. - Austin residents know the drill now.
Move everything upstairs. Pump. Sandbag. And wait for the big, muddy cleanup.
Only four years after a flood damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses in Freeborn and Mower counties, area residents were on task again Thursday as the Cedar River and its tributaries inundated several broad sections of the city.
But with the waters beginning to recede at midday, many seemed confident that this flood wouldn't bring the devastation of the last one.
"We've gotten a little better at building with sandbags," said Joan Burzinski, noting a more waterproof design on the wall she and other volunteers had built in her next-door neighbor's yard.
According to the North Central River Forecast Center, the Cedar River crested at midafternoon Thursday, more than 2 feet below the level it reached in 2004.
Late Thursday, severe thunderstorms swept through central Minnesota, with strong winds taking down trees and power lines in Kandiyohi County, the Sheriff's Office said. Power was out in some communities. A funnel cloud was spotted in the northwestern part of the county, but it didn't touch down.
Even so, the flood damaged hundreds of homes and closed dozens of businesses, including Hormel Foods' Spam Museum. The pork processor also canceled its second shift Thursday.
And early Thursday, the flood turned deadly when an Albert Lea man drowned after driving his vehicle into a torrent that had washed out a county road west of Austin. Dale Wangen, 52, the locally well-known owner of a fencing company, had been headed to pick up a sump pump to get water out of his basement when the accident happened, said a friend, Jim Fleming.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared a state of emergency in Freeborn and Mower counties because of the flooding, which was triggered by 5 to 6 inches of rain overnight Wednesday on saturated ground.
The week's weather conditions prompted Jay Zimmerman, kennel manager at Austin's Humane Society, to sandbag his offices as early as last Sunday. Waters on Thursday came "within one sandbag of the top," he said.
Zimmerman and others noted that this week's flood was the third major flood in Austin this decade.
"It seems like we're getting a '100-year flood' every three or four years now," said electrician Jim Trom as he looked across the half-mile-wide channel of water that usually is N. Main Street.
Officers from the city's police department began warning people of the coming water about 2 a.m. By midmorning, scores of homes had water in basements.
The water submerged some cars, and some drivers had to be rescued when their vehicles hydroplaned or drove around barriers and ended up in deep water, Austin Police Chief Paul Phillip said.
A 2-mile stretch of Interstate 90 through Austin re-opened Thursday afternoon after being under water for much of the day.
Flooding also led to evacuations and road closings in Dodge County, just to the north. Dodge was one of six southeastern Minnesota counties under a narrow flood warning Thursday night.
The high water in Austin will have a significant impact just downstream in Charles City, Iowa, said Steve Baun, a hydrologist for the North Central River Forecast Center.
The heavy rain is "going to send a new flood wave down the Cedar River," Baun said.
Damage in the millions
Several counties are still recovering from the first round of flooding this week. It caused more than $2 million in damage to infrastructure in Fillmore County, county coordinator Karen Brown said. That does not include damage to homes or farmland. At least 100 houses were affected.
Preliminary flood damage estimates in Houston County are close to $6.8 million for infrastructure and $15 million for crops, said Kurt Kuhlers, that county's emergency manager.
Several Austin residents noted that the flood could ultimately be less traumatic than the 2004 disaster because the city bought and removed several homes from flood-prone areas in recent years.
Burzinski said that because of their 2004 experience, residents of her neighborhood were voluntarily refusing to run water or use toilets to reduce sewer backup. Sewage treatment plant superintendent Jim Samuel said the plant was still functioning Thursday afternoon -- "barely."
Downtown, Charles Enger, a former Mower County recorder, was overseeing a pumping operation in the basement of his business, Enger Abstract Co. It was his third time through the routine. "This isn't as bad [as 2004], but there isn't anything good about it," he said.
Staff writers Tim Harlow and Mary Lynn Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646