LITCHFIELD, Minn. – Rae Ann Brutger stood on her doorstep and wept.
The tornado had shoved her home 10 feet off its foundation, leaving her living room at a crazy tilt. She surveyed the damage, stepping cautiously over the smashed snowman figurines she had spent decades collecting and the family photos that had spilled out of an off-kilter cupboard.
“I sincerely realize it could have been much worse,” she said, wiping her eyes and nodding toward her neighbor’s place. The tornado that ripped though the Litchfield mobile home park flattened the double-wide trailer next door, leaving it an almost unrecognizable twist of metal.
The twister was one of four that roared through central Minnesota Monday afternoon, part of a storm that dumped up to 9 inches of rain in spots across north central Minnesota, washing out roads, overrunning highways, leaving neighborhoods in tatters and raising fears of flash flooding across the region.
As small towns from the Brainerd Lakes area to Bayfield, Wis., braced for high water Tuesday, homeowners and survey crews in the small Meeker County towns of Litchfield and Watkins began to take stock of the damage.
“It’s pretty devastating for this little town,” Meeker County Sheriff Brian Cruze said by phone from Watkins. Power was out when officials arrived in the city Monday night, he said, “so you didn’t get a grasp of how bad it was until the daylight came.”
About 30 homes were damaged in Watkins, a dozen of them severely, Cruze said. The tornado damaged businesses, toppled trees and power lines and flipped a semitrailer truck upside down. On Tuesday, the town was bustling with work crews and volunteers, scrambling to stretch tarps across damaged roofs, clear rubble from roads and distribute food and water to the workers laboring through the hot day.
The ferocious storm caused only one minor injury, according to the National Weather Service. But to the residents affected, cleanup was a heartache.
Brutger saved for years to own a home, and now it was in ruins.
“When you have nowhere to go, it’s the worst feeling in the world,” she said.
As Watkins and Litchfield cleaned up, other parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin braced for more trouble. Rivers and streams were rising, sparking worries about flooding after a storm that dumped 9 inches of rain in Hinckley and nearly as much throughout the Brainerd Lakes area.
On Lake Superior, the Coast Guard scrambled to rescue people from the storm, including 33 trapped on Michigan Island, off Saxon Harbor. Around the Apostle Islands, the park service reported that rescuers retrieved 11 kayakers who capsized and washed up on Sand Island.
Over the past week, so much rain — 10 inches — fell in the upper reaches of the St. Croix River watershed that it pushed the river up 10 feet to minor flood stage, the National Weather Service reported. By Sunday, the St. Croix could rise high enough to close the Stillwater Lift Bridge to traffic.
The National Weather Service in Duluth issued flood warnings for much of western and northern Minnesota, including the Brainerd Lakes area and Pine County, northeast of the Twin Cities.
State and local officials were keeping a wary eye on the rising Mississippi River, too, which forecasters warned could crest at 17 feet in Aitkin, Minn., by Wednesday.
“At 18 feet, we have major difficulties,” said Mayor Gary Tibbitts. Once past 17 feet, the water could top the levees north of town and affect the city’s wastewater treatment plant.
In Pine County, residents of Sandstone near the Kettle River braced for flooding that could threaten the record high of 18 feet in 2012.
By midday Tuesday, work crews and volunteers swarmed Litchfield and Watkins. The Red Cross offered help and neighbors opened their homes to people displaced by storm damage.
Brian and Diane Kelbing, who have managed the Park Village Mobile Home Park in Litchfield for the past 35 years, bolted for the complex’s storm shelter when the sirens began to wail, crowding in with about 75 neighbors. When they came out, their garage was gone.
“Our family lives in this park,” Diane Kelbing said, pausing to smile as a neighbor drove up to offer sandwiches. Volunteers from the VFW hall stopped by with gift cards. Others worked to salvage what they could.
The tornado destroyed vehicles, tools and a 1983 Polaris Sport snowmobile that Brian Kelbing raced in competitions. But their home was mostly intact, including Diane’s prize collection of 1,608 lucky troll dolls that stood smiling, rainbow hair barely ruffled by the 2-by-4 that speared through the window next to them.
“The people here [in the neighborhood,] they’re my real treasures, and they’re safe,” Diane said.