Dayton, state leaders tour southern Minnesota flood damage

Kelly Smith Star Tribune (Minneapolis) McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
Farm Forum

CURRIE, Minn. — Water gushed over a road, creating makeshift rapids for carp, as Gov. Mark Dayton and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith got an up-close look on July 6 at southern Minnesota communities hit hardest by recent flooding.

“It’s obviously a very critical situation,” Dayton said to a group of residents at a meeting in the small Murray County city of Slayton. “Hopefully dry weather will continue.”

From Redwood Falls to the Iowa border, southern Minnesota communities were inundated with rainfall last week after an already wet June. On July 3, parts of Murray County got 8 to 10 inches of rain — double the amount that typically falls the entire month of July.

That’s left rivers and lakes swollen, causing overland flooding that’s closed township roads, drowned farm fields and displaced some homeowners. Other residents are busy cleaning out basements filled with water or raw sewage. And local tourism has taken a hit in places like Walnut Grove, where the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum said it has lost a quarter of its revenue because of the loss in visitors and having to postpone last week’s annual pageant.

“Hopefully this is a once in a lifetime event,” said Luke Radke of Currie, as Dayton and Smith examined flooding caused by the Des Moines River as it flowed across County Road 38 and into nearby fields. “This river is swallowing it up.”

Joe Kelly, the director of the state’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said state and FEMA officials will return to the area soon to assess damage.

To be sure, there were many farm fields and towns that escaped major damage. And no injuries or deaths have been reported across Minnesota from the recent storms.

But in Currie, about 30 miles south of Marshall, people like Jeb Malone are tallying up the acres of dead crops. The first-time farmer said he lost 55 of his 160 acres of cornfields.

“I’ve never seen the roads underwater like it is,” said Malone, who is also the mayor of Currie. “There’s not much you can do.”

He estimated the town of 200 residents got 21 inches of rain in two weeks — the most he has seen in 37 years living there. Besides canceling or postponing July 4th festivities this year, about 20 homes also have sewage filling basements after the city’s system became overwhelmed.

After 8.6 inches of rain fell, mostly within two hours on July 3, many residents spent the July 4th holiday filling some 18,000 sandbags to combat the rising waters of Lake Shetek. The 3,500-acre lake is the largest in southwestern Minnesota; about 30 homeowners and kids at a Bible camp evacuated the area.

The Cottonwood River, which flows into the Minnesota River in New Ulm, also spilled over its banks, while the Redwood River reached a record high level in Marshall, according to the National Weather Service.

And it’s not just the southern part of the state. From Carlton County southwest of Duluth to Bemidji, 36 of 87 counties and one tribal nation reported damage from the June and July storms. On July 5, Dayton declared a state of emergency.

“It’s a tough time, there’s no way around that,” Dayton told residents in Slayton after giving his home phone number to the crowd to call if they need help.

Rural townships have even fewer resources to cover the damage, said Vern Carlson, 68, of Lake Sarah Township, adding that culverts are washed out and gravel roads need to be repaired.

“There isn’t a mile of road that we don’t have affected. I’ve never seen flooding as bad as it is,” he said, estimating the damage will cost the township $120,000. “It’s going to be hard on the townships. It’s not all lake residents; it’s the farm residents. It impacts the whole county.”

As a train whistle sounded outside, state officials joined by U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson and Minnesota Department of Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson gathered July 6 on folding chairs inside the Walnut Grove community center to hear residents’ concerns and questions about federal aid.

“This is a 100-year flood,” said Eugene Swanson of Walnut Grove, whose family has lived there since 1881.

For many farmers, the year has brought unprecedented wicked weather, ruining crops. First, winter extended with an April blizzard. Then came frequent rainstorms in June — followed by more rain July 3.

“My wife thinks it’s the apocalypse,” said Jim Sandgren, director of Redwood County’s emergency management. “I’m just glad it wasn’t a tornado.”

As floodwaters draw back, the cleanup is beginning in communities. But the damage costs won’t be fully known until the waters recede more.

“It’s been a hard enough time in farm country,” Smith said. “Now to have this blow is especially tough.”

Farmer Todd Miller of Balaton is just trying to smile and hope for sun after losing 300 acres of corn and soybeans out of his 2,000 acres.

“It’s tough for everybody,” he said. “It just started raining and wouldn’t shut off. This is the worst I’ve ever seen it.”

Brian Johnson of Walnut Grove was about to replant corn and soybeans killed from the rainfall in June when the July 3 storms hit. The area has gotten some 10 inches of rain in two weeks, destroying 60 of his 1,900 acres of farmland.

“This was so much and came so fast … it could not have been any worse,” said Johnson, a resident for 63 years. He urged officials to expedite the process to build dams to stem the impact of flooding.

The storms, though, have also brought these close-knit small towns together, uniting members of the communities over filling sandbags on July 4th and helping stack bags around neighbors’ houses. And in typical Minnesota fashion, many said it could have been worse.

“We’ll survive,” Johnson said. “Life will go on. It’s July, it’s Minnesota — it’s supposed to be dry and warm.”