So many lives turned upside down

As the governor toured the devastation and local officials tried to cope, residents were in shock over the magnitude of their losses.

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BRIAN PETERSON ¥ brianp@startribune.com Stockton, MN 8/20/2007 Flood The home of Roger and Bonnie Oldham in Stockton rested on the railroad tracks after an unbelievable night of flash flooding, Roger and Bonnie were on the roof of the house when it broke free of it's foundation and started heading down the Garvin Brook. (SEE STORY!) As the water levels receded Monday afternoon, residents of Stockton were faced with mud in their houses and yards. Many were busy cleaning out their homes after a flash flood along Garvin Brook left their homes and cars covered in mud.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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WINONA, MINN. - Their homes are battered and soggy, their possessions strewn topsy-turvy across the muddy landscape, their spirits at times defiant, resigned and stunned.

People across southeastern Minnesota are trying to make sense of the weekend flash flooding -- perhaps the largest in state history -- that blasted out roads and bridges, turned placid trout streams into murderous torrents and inundated entire communities.

At least six people died when a series of slow-moving storms dumped up to 18 inches of rain, more than a half year's average, on parts of the region.

Several thousand people have been driven from their homes, including more than half the 1,800 residents of Rushford, a town nestled in a valley and inundated by the flooding Root River and Rush Creek. In Winona County, officials estimated that 585 homes were affected, including nearly 300 that were destroyed or sustained major damage.

One man was still missing Monday night, his car lodged in rocks along a creek near Lewiston after floodwater apparently swept it off a bridge 100 feet upstream. Rescue workers today will resume their search for Jered Lorenz, 37, of Lewiston.

Nancy Lorenz said her son, a taxidermist, was an avid hunter and fisherman. She said he was driving home from a party in a nearby town and never made it back.

More rain, some possibly heavy, is likely over the area until the weekend, and perhaps again next week, the National Weather Service said.

State officials said it will be days before they have a damage estimate. Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared a state of emergency in six counties, and said he will ask for federal assistance.

President Bush is expected to be briefed on the flood when he comes to the Twin Cities today for a fundraiser for Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn.

A first look at the damage

As evacuation orders were lifted and many roads reopened, residents on Monday began getting their first look at what the water had wrought.

A group of local officials surveyed some of the worst areas west of La Crescent from a Blackhawk helicopter with the National Guard. Pawlenty took a driving tour with Houston County Sheriff Doug Ely.

At a public meeting Monday in Caledonia, Pawlenty told local officials that federal emergency funds likely will help repair bridges, roads and levees.

Nearly every low-lying road in Houston County has sections covered with mudslides, fallen trees and rock and gravel. Despite highway crews pushing mud off roads and piling fresh gravel along roadsides through the day, some county roads still were closed Monday night.

No one was allowed back into Rushford, in neighboring Fillmore County, although emergency crews took homeowners for quick visits to their homes if they needed medications. The town has no electricity or phones, and gas was shut off in some sections.

"It could easily take weeks before we evaluate all of the homes and figure out what's going to happen," said Jack O'Donnell, Fillmore County's chief deputy.

The power of nature

In Minnesota City, a town of 235 residents just north of Winona, residents began the agonizing process of returning to their homes to clean up and, in some cases, move out.

On the south end of town, dozens of homeowners in the Sunny Acres neighborhood, a relatively new housing development, passed through a National Guard checkpoint to return home and deal with the mud and sludge.

At house after house, residents removed sofas and carpeting and lamps and tables. Some hosed down garages with power washers.

Others simply stared in disbelief.

"We're going to have a year's full of noise here with all this activity here and all the tourists," said Mayor Don O'Neil, who watched from the garage of his body shop.

"Never in a million years did I think this would happen," said Gerry Smith, who has lived in the same house for more than four decades with husband Stan. "I've sat through a lot of storms in 44 years, and I'd always tell him 'I'm never afraid. This house will always protect us.' "

But early Sunday, as floodwaters from Garvin Brook crept closer to the Smiths' house, their daughter drove over to move her parents to safe ground.

A few hours later, the rushing brook washed away most of the Smiths' back yard, including a workshop, meat locker and shed. The bank gave way all the way up to the house, stopping just short of the foundation.

Although no one has told the Smiths or other residents whether their homes can be saved, the Smiths feared their home will be condemned.

"It's just hard to believe it looks like this," Gerry Smith said, fighting back tears.

Frustrations over aid

While many flood victims spent Monday cleaning, about 40 Winona County residents showed up at the county government center to air frustrations to county officials.

They had hoped to meet with representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Instead, the briefing featured Pawlenty after his tour of the area.

People were upset with insurance companies, the Red Cross and the pace of the assistance. The governor urged patience, and said a preliminary damage assessment throughout the region will take place over the next few days.

"We will try to deliver our very best for you, but again, it will not happen overnight," Pawlenty said.

In Stockton, about 5 miles west of Winona, between 100 and 150 homes -- about half the homes in town -- were damaged, city officials said. As of Monday, 70 percent of Stockton's homes had no power, said Beth Winchester, the city's emergency director.

National Guard soldiers in a caravan of Humvees drove through the town on their way to the town's community center, which was serving as the emergency command center.

Paul and Lavonne Pettersen were among the many people clad in rubber boots and mud-splattered clothes, sifting through the rubble.

"We're trying to see if there's anything salvageable," Lavonne Pettersen said.

This is the third time their house has been hit by disaster. In 1979, a fire destroyed the original house and they built a new one. That house was damaged in a flood 16 years ago.

On Monday, the Pettersens, like many in the town of 680 people, were wrestling with whether to rebuild or move out of the flood zone.

Lavonne Pettersen said she's tired of cleaning up, but her husband thinks they'll stay, if only because he doesn't see too many options.

"Where are you going to move? We survived two of them and the building's still here," Paul Pettersen said. "We've lived here for so long. This is home.

"What are you going to do?"

Staff writer Jeff Shelman contributed to this report. The writers can be reached at statenews@startribune.com.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has declared a state of emergency for six Minnesota counties that experienced torrential flooding over the weekend. They are Winona, Wabasha, Fillmore, Houston, Steele and Olmsted.

SEARCH RESUMES; BUSH BRIEFING

Winona County rescue workers will resume their search today for Jered Lorenz, 37, of Lewiston. And President Bush is expected to get a briefing when he comes to the Twin Cities today for a fundraiser for Sen. Norm Coleman.

WANT TO HELP?

The call for volunteers to help clean up southeastern Minnesota probably won't come for another day or two. The Red Cross, United Way and the Salvation Army are all accepting donations. A7

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