Northeastern Minnesota residents take on own flood repairs

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 24, 2012 - 11:07 AM

Friday's special legislative session aside, residents expect that the work - and expense - of rebuilding is theirs.

THOMSON, MINN. - Jerry Lonke's living room remains unlivable. Armas Koski's garage floor still bears deep cracks.

Two months after sudden floodwaters swept through Duluth and surrounding small towns, many residents, including these two men living in tiny Thomson, are seeing a clearer picture of how much rebuilding still remains.

They also expect that the work will be mostly up to them.

Lonke is aware that state legislators are to meet Friday in special session to pass a $167.5 million relief package that could include help for homeowners, which was not included in the federal emergency funds for fixing public infrastructure.

"You always hear that. We heard FEMA was coming, too," he said, referring to the decision by the federal disaster assistance agency to deny individual assistance to flood victims. "If it shows up, fine.

"I'm not going to sit and wait for it. I can't."

Like others across the region hit hard by June's historic flooding, Thomson residents have been rebuilding and replacing little by little, as their limited incomes allow, mostly with their own hands.

"What they can afford, they try to do," said Mayor Lawrence St. Germain, who stopped by Koski's house on a recent afternoon.

Koski and Lonke are neighbors, but very different men. Koski, who goes by Pete, is slender and sprightly, the 76-year-old son of Finnish immigrants. A former security guard, he and his wife, Donna, have lived in their Thomson home for 47 years. Lonke is a barrel-chested 61-year-old who, after 35 years of working for the railroad, retired to Thomson's main drag six years ago.

But upon returning to their homes after the floodwaters receded, the two men shared one thought: Where to begin?

"It was devastating," said Lonke, eyeing what was once his floor. "You don't know where to start."

But they did, somehow. Each day since, they've started again. The work -- clearing debris, replacing garage doors, caulking seams -- has defined their lives for two months.

'Like shoveling gum'

By the time the Koskis fled their longtime home, the overflowing Thomson Reservoir had made their yard look "like a big lake, and [water was] flowing fast," he said. Walking up the sidewalk in rubber boots, "it almost pulled me over."

"But my grandson grabbed me by the arm," he said quietly, "and I'm here today."

The family returned two weeks later to find that the water had tossed around rocks, tree limbs and Koski's tool shed. It had destroyed the street, sidewalk and back wall of the garage. "We didn't know what we were coming back to," said daughter Kim Price of Duluth.

A team of eight, wearing suspenders and bearing shovels, arrived from Christian Aid Ministries. "I brag them up because they worked hard, 12-hour days, or more," Koski said. "So strong, you would not believe."

Ten days later, they left. Koski's youngest daughter, who spent more than a week scrubbing, has since returned home to Missouri. Koski now roams the back yard alone.

He wakes at 6 a.m. most mornings and puts on a pot of coffee. Decades ago, Koski dug out his basement by hand, removing 9,000 pails of earth over six months. He is shoveling again.

"You couldn't even hardly crawl in here," Koski said, stepping down into the basement. "The muck! You put it on the shovel, and can't get it off. It's like shoveling gum."

The water, which rose to nearly 5 feet, ruined a fridge, a freezer, the washer and dryer. "We didn't lose a kitchen stove, so we lucked out a little," Koski said, with an earnest smile.

The couple gets about $1,000 a month in Social Security, which they spend on "bills and a little bit of gas in the car." They were ready to take out a line of credit for a new washer and dryer. Then, a letter arrived, with a gift card. A Woodbury woman had heard Koski on the radio, in the days after the flood.

"People have been nice, there's no question about it," Koski said.

Some of what was lost will be more difficult to replace. Koski had populated what had been a shaded, perfectly landscaped area beside his home -- "the park," the family calls it -- with creatures he fashioned out of plywood and paint. One black bear still stands watch. But another "went for a swim," Donna Koski joked. So did the moose, cougar and skunk.

The water stole Koski's tools, too. They found his riding mower blocks away. From a 3-inch stack of glossy photographs, Koski pulled out one of his weed trimmer, lodged in the middle of Hwy 210.

"How did it get in here?" he said, still awed. "Right into the blacktop! The kids could not pull it out."

The floodwaters delivered objects, too. Rocks, mostly. But also someone's welcome mat, shaped like a heart.

Not so pretty at first

Lonke has drawn a black dash in the middle of his garage, below a dozen screwdrivers hung in a neat row. "Water line," it says.

Thirty-one inches from the floor. High enough to hit his tools, float his propane tank, flood his beloved camper and submerge the first floor of his house. When he first opened the front door, his chest got tight. He thought he might have an anxiety attack, he said.

Since the flood, Lonke has lived in the garage.

It's no wimpy two-stall. After buying the place in 2006, Lonke added a screen room, where he now sleeps on a sizable bed below a Marine Corps flag. On one recent afternoon, a breeze blew through, as a radio played "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." His companion, Jewels, a Jack Russell-rat terrier mix, barked outside.

"It didn't look so pretty at first," he said.

Photos show dirty, oily water 2 feet deep. Friends helped him cut wood off walls, pull out insulation and squeegee the floor. He tore siding off the house and is painting and putting up trim. He replaced garage doors, bent in when a fire truck sped by, creating a heavy wave.

"These things can be fixed," he said. "It's just going to take time and money." He was able to move some furniture out of harm's way and points out that photos and prints that hung in his living room were left untouched.

Lonke bought the land, which he lovingly landscapes, after retiring from the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway. "I didn't think I'd be doing this for retirement," he said, gesturing to some plasterboard, which feels heavier these days. "I thought maybe I'd go fishing."

He lives on his pension and will save for new appliances. "That washing machine is making a heck of a lot of noise," he said. A former co-worker stopped by earlier this month with a $1,000 gift card to Menards. The guys had raffled off a gun.

Lonke said he is thankful for that, and is confident that there "ain't nothing I can't fix." He said he'll repair the camper's tongue and groove paneling, and he could always build new kitchen cabinets himself. Nevertheless, he paused, looking around.

"I can't do it all," he said, standing in his living room. "As much as I'd like to."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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