Flood changed the look and the future of Zumbro Falls

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 30, 2011 - 11:09 PM

A year later, southern Minnesota towns inch toward transformation. "It's like getting remarried and starting over after 39 years," said a resident forced to move.


The Wisconsin and Minnesota chapter of the Southern Baptism Convention Disaster Relief provided workers last October to help residents of Zumbro Falls clean homes damaged by the flood.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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ZUMBRO FALLS, MINN. - After 37 years living on Zumbro Falls' main street, Bob Sommerfield and his wife, Nancy, still signal a left turn when they approach their home. Then they remember: Their home now is on the right -- and 5 feet higher.

"We still don't have the home we had over there," said Bob, who has been rehabbing and expanding the house he and his wife bought after theirs was destroyed in a flash flood a year ago. "But that's the way it goes. It's like getting remarried and starting over after 39 years."

Indeed, Zumbro Falls and other southern Minnesota communities inundated last fall are still overhauling once-familiar surroundings in ways that won't be the same.

In Zumbro Falls, a town tucked into a deep crease along the Zumbro River, more than 20 houses are abandoned and waiting to be demolished, once nearly $2 million in government funds is approved. That's about one-fourth the number of homes that had been inhabited before the flood.

Of the 207 people counted as Zumbro Falls residents in the 2000 census, about one-fourth have moved to other towns or farms and aren't expected back soon. Some of the displaced have moved to a dramatically different suburban-style development on the bluff above town.

In Hammond, a smaller community a few miles downstream, seven houses are scheduled for demolition. Upstream, five more await the wrecking ball in Oronoco, on the outskirts of Rochester, where a 74-year-old dam damaged by the flood is also likely to be taken out, converting a silted-in lake back into two channels of the Zumbro. Pine Island, a much larger community where two arms of the Zumbro converge, will lose at least four houses to demolition, though 33 others qualify for optional buyouts worth nearly $7 million. In Northfield, where two St. Olaf College biology professors led an effort to remove about a ton of carp from a walled-in sidewalk where they'd been trapped by Cannon River floodwaters, a popular restaurant is just finishing repairs and remodeling and will open soon. In Owatonna, flooded by the Straight River and Maple Creek, the city bought out 10 houses, but the properties are being absorbed into existing public property.

Widespread disaster

In all, the rainfall and flooding damaged or destroyed 600 homes across much of southern Minnesota, triggering $130 million in federal and state disaster aid, but not including settlements from individual flood insurance or other policies. Twenty-one counties were included in a presidential disaster declaration.

The buyout programs for destroyed properties generally take 12 to 18 months because they involve a series of local and federal decisions, as well as cost-benefit analyses and environmental and historical reviews. Zumbro Falls Mayor Al Christenson said residents seem to have been patient.

"I'm in the same boat they are," he said, noting that his own house was destroyed and is in line for a buyout. "They know I'm not holding up the program."

Under terms of the federal buyouts, land where houses are removed will be converted to green space. In Zumbro Falls, that means a large portion of what had been a tight business and residential neighborhood along Hwy. 60 will become essentially a park where the heart of town used to be.

"It's going to change the look of this town," said Zumbro Falls service station owner Fran Graves, who had several feet of water in his shop and convenience store.

Changing the neighborhood

Some of the old residential neighborhood is already green space, such as the lot where the Sommerfields' old house was removed under terms of their flood insurance policy. This summer it became their vegetable garden.

The Sommerfields considered buying and building on farmland outside of Zumbro Falls, or in Mazeppa, about 7 miles west, where they'd rented a place after the flood. But a neighbor across the street bought a new place on top of the hill, and gave them a "reasonable" price on his house, which at one time had 18 inches of water on the main floor but was still sound.

"Mazeppa -- we enjoyed the people, and they were really nice to us, but we felt out of place," Sommerfield said. "It didn't seem like home."

Deb Wilhelm, who has worked in Graves' convenience store for 20 years, is one of those who have moved to a new hilltop house. Her former paid-off four-square, on the corner of Hwys. 60 and 63, flooded and will be demolished. But buyout money will help pay off the new house, "and we wouldn't have that worry again every time it rains."

"A lot of the old neighbors are up there," she said, adding that it's unnerving to drive through the old neighborhood at night and see the houses of former neighbors without any lights on. "But you don't see the little kids playing. Hopefully as people move in they'll have kids, and grow up, up there."

Forced march forward

Christenson said the flood has also caused Zumbro Falls to consider partnerships with neighboring communities to install some regional flood control, as well as to look for new development opportunities. One strategy might be to establish a "brand" whereby the region could market its scenic location to tourists and potential employers.

"I don't think there would have been the support for that before," he said. "Before the flood, I think everybody was satisfied with as-is. This made [change] easier; a significant portion of people realize it just can't go back to the way it was.

"I'd never say the flood was a good thing, because it was not," Christenson added. "But it did allow businesses to renew themselves, and allowed us as a city to do the same thing. A lot of people don't take that chance until they're forced to."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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