Flashback Friday: Floodwaters Wreaked Havoc on Southeastern Minnesota 10 Years Ago

August 18, 2017 12:28 PM

When Les Ladewig remembers that August night exactly 10 years ago, it's the relentless rain he thinks of first.

More than 17 inches worth.

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That's how much fell on the ridges above Rushford in the overnight between Aug. 18 and 19, 2007, swelling Rush Creek and the Root River over their banks and leashing floodwaters loose upon the town.

"It started coming up and it kept coming and coming," recalls Ladewig, Rushford's mayor at the time.

"I live next to Rush Creek on the north end of town. You could see the way the water was rushing and all the debris coming down. It kept getting higher and higher and higher," he said. "Then about 1:15 a.m., I got a call from the city clerk asking me to come down to city hall. I got there, and we started to put a plan in place for mobilizing rescue personnel."

They would be needed.

Before the flood waters receded, around 700 or more residents in the community of 1,700 would be evacuated. Homes and businesses were flooded all over town.

"We had 3 feet of water, maybe more, in the main part of downtown," Ladewig said. "The only way to get around was by boat. Fortunately, we had a lot of volunteers who brought their fishing boats, and we sectioned the town off into quadrants.

"One group went one way, and the other went another so we didn't repeat ourselves."

The situation was much the same all over southeastern Minnesota. The flooding claimed the lives of seven people.

"It got overwhelming," recalls Dave Belz, then the deputy manager of emergency management for Winona County.

"I remember one patrol car got stuck and had to be rescued. Mud surrounded the car and it was seeping inside. We had roads washed out. Houses getting washed out," he said. "We even had a house that started floating away down the railroad tracks. We had people on their roofs that had to be rescued."

He added, "It exhausted all the resources we had available."

The most rain was recorded in tiny Witoka, where National Weather Service records show 17 inches fell. But Utica got 14 inches. New Hartford/Nodine got 13.4. A total of 12.20 inches was recorded on the south side of La Crosse across the border in Wisconsin.

And on the northwest side of Rochester, 11.10 inches were recorded.

A state of emergency was declared in Winona, Wabasha, Fillmore, Houston, Steele and Olmsted Counties.

"There were a lot of people who had to leave their houses and needed someplace to go," Belz said. "The fortunate thing was that the Red Cross had done a shelter drill at St. Mary's University (in Winona) the week before. So there was already a plan of attack. They were able to get that shelter open in just a few minutes."

Then came the aftermath ...

"I remember when the water started to recede after a couple of days, there was so much mud," Ladewig said. "It was pretty much mud everywhere. And people had water still filling their basements. Some even had water on the first floor.

"There was a lot of cleanup to do."

A process Ladewig and Belz both said would not have been possible without the efforts of volunteers who came streaming into the area from across the state and nation.

"People came from all over the U.S.," Ladewig said. "We even had some contributions from around the world. People sent financial aid. People came into town to help. There were so many people, it was hard to thank them all. But we owe them all a debt of gratitude."

"There were hundreds and hundreds of people," Belz added. "The Red Cross here was out there immediately. Then we had Red Cross people coming in from all over. The Southern Baptists came in and helped out with meals. We had all sorts of groups coming in.

"The clothing distribution area had to be moved several times because the volume kept growing. We enlisted the Winona State football team for that. The players came in and did the heavy lifting."

But Belz said the impact the floods had was hard to believe.

"I spent most of my time at our headquarters the first few days," he said. "But about a week later, I was finally able to get out and see a lot of the damage. I was just overwhelmed by how much damage there really was.

"I saw campgrounds where the water line was about 10 to 12 feet above where the tents go. There were houses washed away. Garages washed away. Whole lawns wiped out. It was devastating."

And that devastation took time to recover from.

"I think there are probably still emotional and financial scars," said Ladevig, who will be among those gathering for a program at Montini Hall in Rushford Sunday, remembering the 10-year anniversary of the floods.

The event begins at 11 a.m. A program starts at 1 p.m.

"There were people who had their houses paid for who now have another mortgage to deal with. There were businesses who lost a lot of equity. It had a major impact on this area," Ladevig said. 

Credits

Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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