Volunteers help Wadena families clear flood debris, clean up
It didn't take long for five inches of standing water to cover Glenda Culbreath's basement floor in the early morning hours of July 11, ruining heaps of clothing and other prized possessions.
"That was half my life," a teary-eyed Culbreath said Monday as volunteers removed waterlogged debris from her rented home on First Avenue Southwest. "At least it's all replaceable stuff."
"I'm glad they're here," she said. "I can't physically do it. I thank God for these volunteers. I would never have been able to get through it by myself."
Throughout Monday, amid the intense heat and humidity, 33 volunteers assisted at about 19 Wadena households, including Culbreath's. Some of the families simply needed help hauling debris to the dump. Others required assistance to demolish and remove moldy sheetrock and soggy carpeting. Volunteer coordinators offered over-the-phone advice to an additional 20 households.
Mayor Wayne Wolden, who volunteered at several residences, said the flooding from the July 11 torrential rain storm has been hard on the city. "I saw some property owners that are just tired."
The Wadena County Sheriff's Office mobile emergency operations trailer, parked at the southwest warming house, served as the command center Monday. An adjacent Red Cross truck provided volunteers with food and beverages. Inside the trailer, Wadena Police Chief Naomi Plautz and Wadena County emergency management director Luke Mandershied worked with officials from Nechama, a Jewish disaster relief organization, and Catholic United Response. Using information from local officials, the two agencies coordinated the volunteer effort, providing cleaning supplies, safety equipment and expertise.
"We really try to put a focus on rural communities that don't receive a lot of media attention," said Nechama's operations manager Dan Hoeft, who noted both organizations just came from southwestern Minnesota, another area hard hit by recent rains.
A lot of the cleanup work was well underway - or completed - by the time volunteers arrived Monday.
"It was a lot of neighbors helping neighbors," said Bob Heuermann, Catholic United Response executive director.
Hoeft commended the professionalism of the local disaster response.
"I wish we had this collaboration at all the places we serve," he said, adding, "It's pretty rare when I go anywhere where the mayor is out doing work."
Volunteers wrapped up at most of the homes in need on Monday, although there's three to four households that will still need some help once the volunteer organizations leave town.
"All it takes is one willing youth group," Hoeft said.
Both Nechama and Catholic United Response previously worked in Wadena after the 2010 tornado. So did members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which had 17 volunteers, mostly from the Alexandria area, in town on Monday.
Dave and Carol Aldeen - among the 16 volunteers from the Wadena area - were on the receiving end of assistance during the tornado. On Monday, they offered some.
"We got a lot of help," Carol Aldeen said, "so we decided to do our share here."
The Aldeens spent much of the day cleaning the Carlson family's basement, which produced two trailer - and three pickup truck - loads of debris.
Paul Carlson repeatedly expressed his gratitude for the assistance.
"If we hadn't had volunteers, it would have been a few weeks (of work) at least," he said.
Unlike most Wadena residents with basement damage, insurance will cover some of Carlson's losses.
"We'll get a little bit of money, but not nearly enough," Carlson said.
The city will also cover his dumping fees at the county landfill. At a special council meeting last Wednesday, members agreed to pay for the disposal of flood debris for anyone within the city limits through July 31. The program will not be retroactive for landfill visits prior council action.
"It has been completely nuts out here," Tammy Ehrmantraut, Wadena County transfer station supervisor, said Monday.
Ehrmantraut estimated the city had paid the fees for about 55 households, mostly on the southwest side.
Officials hope to get the dumping fees - and other eligible public flood fighting expenses - reimbursed by FEMA. There was minimal damage to infrastructure from the storm, but just the cost of building the Olmstead Avenue dike was about $50,000, said Public Works Director Dan Kovar.
On Monday, President Barack Obama declared a federal disaster area in Minnesota, but at this point, Wadena County is not on the list of eight counties eligible for federal cost sharing for public flood fighting expenses.
Teams of FEMA and state homeland security officials visited Wadena Tuesday to "verify and validate what damage has occurred," said Alan Cross, FEMA spokesman.
If Wadena County experienced a qualifying amount of damage, the federal government would cover 75 percent of the costs, while the local share would be 25 percent. With the majority of Minnesota counties experiencing flooding this summer, the state's $3 million state disaster relief will likely not be enough to cover the local share. Thus, Gov. Mark Dayton - who visited Wadena July 14 - may need to call a special session of the legislature, although he is not ready to commit to a date.
Under current law, state and federal dollars would cover damage to public infrastructure and flood fighting costs - not individual claims.
Unless state lawmakers decide to approve individual assistance, homeowners without insurance will have few places to turn for help.
The Little Falls-based Initiative Foundation is accepting donations for flood victims in the Wadena (https://givemn.org/project/Wadena-Area-Relief-Fund) and Hewitt (https://givemn.org/project/Hewitt-Area-Relief-Fund53c7dadde943b) areas.
Much like after the tornado, city will come up with a process for evaluating assistance requests and dispersing the funds through Mahube-Otwa Community Action Partnership and Wadena County Human Services , said City Administrator Brad Swenson.
"A lot of it depends on how big (the fund) gets," he said.
As of Tuesday, the fifth day of the fundraising effort, just $75 had been raised.
Donations are intended for families in greatest need, said Kathy Gaalswyk, Initiative Foundation president.
"In general," she said, "it's to help people out that are going to have gaps."