A drastic change of scenery in 2 towns

  • Article by: Richard Meryhew and Allie Shah
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • August 21, 2007 - 12:29 AM

MINNESOTA CITY, MINN. -- The Tofstad boys always thought they had the coolest back yard in town. It was wide and deep, with a fire pit, a grove of mature trees, an archery target and enough lush grass for Wiffle ball or flag football.

Not anymore.

The heavy rains and raging waters that destroyed parts of six Minnesota counties over the weekend cut a nasty gash into the hillside along Garvin Brook in Minnesota City, eating away enough dirt to send all of those trees and much of the Tofstads' back yard downstream.

By Monday, the boys had a clear view of the still-swollen creek and the devastation left behind.

Gone was a garden on one side and an above-ground pool on the other. Willow and elm trees are history, too.

"Usually, you couldn't see much of the creek or the bridge because of all the trees," Steven Tofstad said. "We had about 20 of 'em back there."Before, we were all blocked off by the trees," said his twin brother, Robert, who along with Steven, brother Andy, 9, and parents Matt and Jenny, videotaped the destruction. "Now, everyone can see us."

And the Tofstads were lucky.

Garages, cars and sheds lost

About a half-dozen neighbors in the town of 235 people had it worse. Some lost sheds and garages and septic systems and pieces of foundation to the river. Others nearly did, with garages and houses dangling ever-so-close to the edge of the newly cut creek bank.

One homeowner lost a car when the bank gave out and the garage floor collapsed.

The water swept through town, taking apart bridges as it cut a wider swath than anyone could have imagined.

First signs of trouble

Mayor Don O'Neil, who lives across the street from the houses hardest hit, said the first sign of trouble came about 6 a.m. Sunday when the brook, which normally is about a foot deep and 12 to 15 feet wide, rose up and washed out footings of one of the town's railroad bridges. Within minutes, the second railroad bridge washed out, too.

When the highway bridge that spans the creek broke apart about an hour later, the brook, by then resembling a raging river, started eroding the north side of the creek bank.

Some residents, such as Stan and Gerry Smith, left hours before. The Tofstads packed up their videos and family photo albums and put them in the car, just in case. Other neighbors hurriedly helped each other remove items from their yards.

O'Neil suspected there would be problems when he heard reports late Saturday night of flash flooding in Stockton, which is 5 miles upstream.

"Everything that goes into Stockton from the hillside winds up here," O'Neil said.

Messy cleanup in Stockton

House to house along North E Street in Stockton the same scene unfolded: front yards piled high with mud-covered furniture; clothes, bicycles and toys hauled from flooded basements. Generators buzzed and National Guard troops gathered.

North E Street was one of several in the lower part of the town of 680 people that was especially hard hit.

The great divide

In the middle of the street stood a deep and wide chasm, created when the gushing waters from Garvin Brook shattered the asphalt. With no way to cross the road safely, neighbors waved at each other from across the fresh divide.

"The thing is we look around and we see all of our neighbors lost everything," said Shaun Wehlage, 29, taking a break from cleanup. "We lost one level, so we're lucky."

Next door at Paul and Lavonne Pettersen's house, Paul's collection of stuffed wildlife littered the front lawn. Everything was coated in thick mud.

The Pettersens also kept an assortment of wild animals in a back yard sanctuary -- from pheasants to quail to a pair of fawns that he once bottle-fed.

The floods wiped out the cages, pens and fences, apparently sweeping away the animals, too. On Monday, Pettersen said he was done raising wildlife.

"No more birds, no more animals," he said, " 'cause you feel too bad when they're gone."

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