Coming to grips with their ruin

While most homes in Fargo and Moorhead stayed dry, rural residents along the Red River began tallying losses - physical and emotional.

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Miranda Schoenfish,17 helps drain the water in the garage of her family's house.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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RED RIVER VALLEY

Delores Palowski knew it was bad. But she couldn't bear to look.

The icy waters of the swollen Red River had overtaken her home just south of the Moorhead city limits three nights earlier, and only now, in the light of a Sunday afternoon, could she muster the courage to walk down the stairs to inspect the damage.

"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" she cried as her daughter, Nannette Bakko, walked across a peach carpet now stained with the muck of the mighty Red. "Oh, Nan, are we ever going to get it clean again?"

As thousands of residents in the big cities of Fargo and Moorhead successfully kept the Red at bay Sunday -- the two cities reported a total of 10 homes lost to the flood, with more lost outside the city limits -- folks such as Palowski and others living close to the river in the rural outskirts of town returned to homes swamped by floodwater.

"I loved it out here. I absolutely loved it," the 84-year-old widow said as she hugged her Shih Tzu and looked out the kitchen at a yard overtaken by the Red. "It was so nice to be on the river. Until now."

Across the river, a few miles south of Fargo, Tom and Faye Erbes huddled inside their two-story house after pumping the remains of the floodwater from their basement.

They had no running water, no phone or cable, and a flooded furnace.

Despite the mess and a couple of days away, they were glad to be back.

The couple's 13-year-old house, which sits in a row of houses on the Wild Rice River near the Red River confluence, is high enough that they didn't need to sandbag to protect it against the Red in 1997. But after predictions that this year's deluge would be worse, they worked hard to prepare.

They filled and stacked bags in a 2 1/2-foot-high perimeter around their house, finishing the work by Tuesday night. They rushed to move their most valuable belongings from the basement. They saved water in buckets and bought groceries.

Wednesday, the water crept into the front yard and later climbed the sandbags.

Thursday, things turned bad.

The two, weary from little sleep, had manned the pumps all night, clearing them of debris while it snowed. The farm field across the street turned into a lake. Forecasters kept predicting higher crests.

How long can we keep this up? They wondered.

Just before 2 p.m., Tom saw water sliding into the attached garage.

Faye came up from the basement with a worried face: It's coming in here, too.

Soon, one of their small pumps stopped humming. A large pump gave out next.

The water was winning.

Tom looked at Faye, defeated. We're done, he said. She knew it, too.

They threw a duffel bag into their four-wheel-drive pickup and drove through bumper-high water and ice, headed for Tom's brother's house and dry land.

Faye cried.

Saturday morning, a neighbor called the Erbeses with a bit of good news -- their electricity was still on. The water had reached about the fifth basement step, but miraculously, the submerged pump in their basement was still working. They could still fight it.

Sunday, Tom stood in the basement, empty of water, his rubber boots making patterns on the silt-covered tile floor.

A professional flooring installer, he had finished almost every inch of the basement himself, completing a pine wainscoted bathroom two months ago.

But the water had reached 4 feet high, and the basement would have to be gutted soon. His red-felt pool table was ruined. A small entertainment center rested on its back. Mattresses and a dresser sat soaked in a bedroom.

"That's gonna be thrown," he said.

Their flood insurance should help.

"It's just a basement, so we'll be fine," Faye said.

Hoping to stay

For Palowski, who moved to the Crestwood development 15 minutes south of downtown Moorhead 21 years ago, seeing her home so badly damaged stirred a flood of emotions.

This was the house she and her husband, Zygmunt, built in 1988 and where they enjoyed retirement. To protect against flooding, they built almost 2 feet higher than the elevation required by the township.

Even after her husband died in 2005, Palowski stayed.

"Everybody on the street is so wonderful," she said. "It's just so nice out here."

That changed Thursday night, when the power went out in the Crestwood neighborhood and the sump pumps Palowski's son was using to keep the Red from her furnished basement stopped. Within minutes, water rushed in. Although Palowski's son used a generator to restart the pumps, it was too late.

Eighteen inches of water pooled, destroying a bedroom, bath, den, family room and kitchen.

Although Palowski stayed in the house until Saturday, when she slept over at her daughter's for the night, she never set foot in the basement.

Shortly after noon Sunday, she took her first peek. She got close to the bottom step before catching a quick glimpse of the damage and a whiff of the musty air.

As her daughter picked soggy wrapping paper and other damaged goods from cupboards and shelves, Palowski walked teary-eyed back up the steps. She grabbed her dog, sat down at the kitchen table and stared out at the bloated Red.

"We never, never, never would have bought out here if we'd have known," Palowski said.

She has flood insurance, and hopes she can stay.

"I always said, 'I'm not leaving this house until I'm 90,'" she said. "I really thought I could do it.

"But I think that my children will want me to leave."

richm@startribune.com • 612-673-4425 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

LATEST DEVELOPMENTS

• Forecasts call for river levels to decline all week, even with 6 inches of snow falling tonight and Tuesday.

• Water went under a flood wall and swamped two buildings at a Fargo school early Sunday. A4-A5

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