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Unprecedented: Flood strikes Wadena area, residents seek relief

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Four years after the EF4 tornado, the southwest side of Wadena experienced a different sort of natural disaster last weekend - flooding.

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Officials don’t have an accurate estimate of how many basements became swamped after about five inches fell on the already saturated soil in just a few hours early Friday morning, but the damage from the rain water and sewage backup is significant and next to none of it will be covered by insurance.

Gov. Mark Dayton and his public safety commissioner met with local leaders at the Wadena County Courthouse on Monday to learn the extent of the damage and hear appeals for state assistance.

Limited help

With floods so rare in this area, few if any homeowners have insurance that covers cleanup and losses, Mayor Wayne Wolden told Dayton.

“We’re not sure what to tell them,” Wolden said.

While the public costs of fighting a flood are eligible for federal and state reimbursement, direct support for homeowners is “the big gap in federal coverage,” said Dayton, who last week requested a presidential disaster declaration for 55 Minnesota counties.

Due to the widespread flood damage from Rainy Lake to the southwestern corner of the state, Minnesota should qualify for federal help for public costs, he said, but the state’s $3 million disaster relief fund - with similar eligibility restrictions - that covers the required (25 percent) local match probably won’t be enough.

To shore up the fund, the governor would need to call a special session of the legislature. On Monday, he wouldn’t commit to a timeframe.

“I don’t know yet,” Dayton said, pointing out it will remain unclear how much additional money might be needed until damage assessments are complete. “I’ll have to consult with legislative leaders before we proceed …

“I don’t want to put out false hopes that homeowners’ losses will be covered. I can’t say that.”

There is some limited federal help available, Dayton noted. A Department of Housing and Urban Development program offers assistance for qualifying victims of disasters who are struggling to make mortgage payments.

Residents will be able to get help cleaning up. The American Red Cross, which deployed a mobile response unit to Wadena over the weekend and plans to conduct an assessment of damaged properties, has pledged cleanup kits.

Volunteers coordinated by the state chapter of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (MNVOAD) are expected in the area shortly after waters recede, said Luke Mandershied, Wadena County emergency management director. To request assistance, contact the United Way of the Twin Cities at 1-800-543-7709.

The Wadena City Council is considering “possible ways to provide some assistance” with debris removal and hauling, said Brad Swenson, city administrator.

“It’s kind of up in the air right now ...” he said Monday afternoon. “The best we can do at this point in time is try our best.”

The city might be able to provide help for residents who experienced sanitary sewer backups. Swenson said the city’s insurance adjustor will evaluate claims - as of Monday afternoon, he had received 24 of them - to determine whether they’ll be covered by the city’s insurance policy.

Response

Though many residents awoke to water - and in some cases sewage backup - in their basements Friday morning, the full extent of the problem wasn’t clear until Saturday morning.

Public Works Director Dan Kovar said he got a call from the on-call city worker who realized that rather than receding, the “lake” that had formed Friday in the Tapley Park area had grown overnight due to water flowing north into the city over Olmstead Avenue Southwest from the thousands of acres of saturated land to the south.

“I think this is a little more serious than we realized,” Kovar recalled the worker saying.

Without delay, the fire department began pumping water from Tapley Park along Lincoln Avenue to a storm sewer with a different outlet. Over the next 48 hours, the pump drained an estimated six million gallons of water from the Tapley Park area, Fire Chief Dean Uselman said.

By Saturday afternoon, crews had turned the gravel Olmstead Avenue into a dike from Fourth Street to 11th Street, halting the water flow at city limits.

The next day, to ensure the stability of the dike, crews added another two feet, wrapping up work at about 2 a.m. Monday morning.

“Olmstead Avenue will be pretty much a dike for the rest of the summer,” Wolden said.

In the meeting with Dayton, Kovar praised the “great coordination between the county and the city.”

Dayton lauded the community response, particularly the dike builders and firefighters.

“A lot of really heroic work goes on in these situations,” he said.

Kovar reported the dike held up well overnight and the water on the south side fell by one inch by morning. But he sounded a note of caution.

“If we lose our dike, it would probably cover a third of the town,” Kovar said.

Later Monday, after the water receded another inch, Kovar reported: “(The dike’s) looking good.”

However, the wastewater treatment plant was still operating at maximum capacity, prompting officials to extend recommended restrictions on water usage for another 48 hours.

“Every little bit helps,” Kovar said.

Regional flooding

The impact of Friday’s deluge was not limited to the southwest side of Wadena.

Much of the golf course remained under water Monday and waves lapped against the edge of U.S. Highway 71 north of town.

High water forced lane closures on U.S. Highway 10 near Aldrich Monday night.

In Hewitt, at least 25 residents reported water in their basements.

To the west, in New York Mills - like many places in Wadena and the countryside - water turned up in homes that had never before had any flooding issues, said Darla Berry, city clerk.

She said Miller Street near Highway 10, which was already affected by flooding, was impassible after the rain. “The size of that problem grew tremendously Friday.”

Verndale City Clerk Barbara Holmes said only a few homeowners have complained about flooding.

Water seeped into Verndale Mayor Raye Ludovissie’s basement, but he wasn’t worked up about it.

“There’s nothing you can do,” he said. “It came too fast.”

On the north side of Verndale Monday, Wayne Perius battled the water that continued to flow onto his property, a low point, and into his basement.

“It’s to the point where I can’t pump the water out of the basement at all,” he said.

Perius was able to salvage most valuables, but some photo albums were waterlogged.

“Every picture I have of my children - the only photos I have,” he said with frustration.

Rare event

A swath of central Minnesota from Perham through northern Todd County received between three to seven inches within a few hours Friday morning.

An observer three miles south of Wadena reported 4.83 inches - the third most rain for a 24-hour period in the city’s recorded history, said National Weather Service meteorologist Bill Barrett.

“I’ve been in this house since 1966 and we’ve never had anything like this,” said southwest Wadena resident Arleen Paulson, yet another victim of a flooded basement.

There are plenty more like her in the Wadena area - and throughout Minnesota.

Dayton, who visited Ottertail later Monday, has crisscrossed the state over the past month to survey the flood damage from a historic wet start to summer.

Not only was last month the wettest June on record statewide, it was the wettest month ever recorded in Minnesota, according to University of Minnesota climatologist Mark Seeley.

The extent of flooding statewide is “almost unprecedented,” Dayton said.

Experience helps

The sudden flood has evoked difficult memories of a much larger natural disaster for both residents and local leaders.

But the experience during the tornado means Wadena is better equipped to navigate the labyrinthian state and federal disaster relief process, officials said.   

When a state Homeland Security and Emergency Management official called Wolden Monday afternoon, the mayor knew it was him. He had already had the contact saved in his cell phone.

Those contacts - and the experience handling a crisis on the ground - should benefit the city this time around, said city and county leaders.

“We learned a lot from the tornado,” Swenson said. “We understand who to contact a lot better than we used to.”

Tim Fiskum remembers June 17, 2010 in vivid detail. He and his family huddled in a crawlspace as the twister tore off half his roof.

Four years later, they live across from Tepley Park on Madison Avenue, at the epicenter of the city’s flooding.

“Our whole driveway was under water,” Fiskum said.

Although it stranded the family all weekend, water never made it into the basement, thanks to a shallow footprint and the help of sandbags from the city.

“We feel really fortunate,” Fiskum said.

His backyard neighbor, Monty Johnson, returned from vacation to find his Lincoln Avenue home virtually surrounded by water.

He’ll have to tear out the carpet, but the damage is minimal.

“Hopefully, no mold takes over,” he said. “It could have been a heck of a lot worse,”

Four years ago, Johnson, too, lost his home in the tornado.

“It’s locusts next,” he joked.

 
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