Dread in Rushford

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 29, 2007 - 4:58 PM

Still reeling after a devastating flood, the town faces another worry: Winter's arrival.

The arrival of fall color is usually inspiring in southeastern Minnesota. But for many in flood-ravaged Rushford, it is bringing a sense of dread this year. "It seems so early," said Nancy Benson, looking up from her soon-to-be-demolished house at a pair of orange-leafed maples across High Street a few days ago. "We don't want fall to come too quickly. We need more time to get things done."

Six weeks have passed since Rush Creek, swollen by an unprecedented 15 inches of rain over the area, jumped dikes and filled much of Rushford. The old stone school has reopened downtown. But only one business, the Subway sandwich shop, has fully reopened.

The grocery store is still three weeks away from having its shelves full -- it doesn't have shelves at all right now. Both of the city's banks are operating in temporary quarters -- one sharing a lot with a car wash. The State Farm insurance agent has hung his shingle on a trailer parked in front of a gutted mall. The newspaper is publishing out of a room in the Rushford Lutheran Church.

On the surrounding blocks, dozens of houses still show caved-in foundations. Many are stripped of their sodden lower siding -- open to the elements and rodents -- or gutted on the inside, their owners scattered among relatives or friends or in FEMA trailers on the edges of town.

Entire blocks are dark and abandoned at night.

Though the devastation in Rushford happened overnight, officials have told residents recovery may take up to three years.

"It's been six weeks of hard labor, but it's still really shocking," said Rushford Council Member Laura Deering, who has deployed 3,000 volunteers throughout the city since the flood. "For homeowners, it's still overwhelming. But our utmost concern now is: winter's coming."

Benson, who is also on the City Council, feels the urgency as much as anybody. She and her husband, Lewie, not only lost their home of 22 years but she also lost her haircutting business downtown. Both of their vehicles were destroyed.

And, in an example of how a calamity is shared in a city of about 1,700 people, three of Nancy Benson's brothers, a sister-in-law, a niece and a grandson also got knocked out of six other homes. Nancy and Lewie Benson are living with a daughter just outside of town.

"We're taking it one day at a time, and we're there for each other," said Nancy Benson, 63.

It's likely that insurance will cover next to nothing of the damages in Rushford. Only two people in the city had purchased flood insurance policies, according to FEMA statistics. People thought that dikes that had been built after floods in 1965 were sufficient.

Wading through paperwork

Those who can afford to are forging ahead with repairs and even improvements. Stumpy's, a thriving bar and restaurant, is expanding its kitchen and game room, and opened for drinks, sandwiches and pizza Friday. But it's paying its own way, said co-owner Judy Christian.

Elsewhere, residents and business owners are wading through the paperwork required to get part of $157 million in flood relief authorized by the Legislature in a special session 3½ weeks after the flood.

Loans from the Small Business Administration and other agencies are also available.

But for most victims, that will mean piling new debt on top of a major loss. The Bensons, for example, said they're too old for Nancy to take out new loans to reopen her business. Homeowner Michelle Ekern said aid couldn't be used to cover the $110,000 it would take to demolish and replace her house with a modular unit, so instead she's borrowing $60,000 to repair a 126-year-old, two-bedroom house with half a basement, on which she already owes $57,000.

"If this happened to an elderly person, they'd just have to go into a nursing home," Ekern said.

While a small percentage of the state loans might be forgiven, depending on certain criteria, city administrator Windy Block said business owners in particular want to see a greater portion of the loans forgiven converted to grants. Negotiations will take more time. Meanwhile, there's the matter of finding carpenters to install siding, plumbers to install furnaces and electricians who can do the work needed before winter.

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    Saturday September 29, 2007

    HOW YOU CAN HELP• Funds to help victims of the flooding in Rushford can be sent to:City of Rushford Disaster...

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