Friday, August 24, 2007

Hokah Hammered

Going East from Houston, I could see that the Root River had escaped its banks and then some. Looking like a giant had spilled a glass of chocolate milk, the muddied water had completely swamped fields and farms in the river valley. Traveling HWY 16 gave an idea of just how damaging all the rainfall had been. While there were areas that had been flooded over, apparently briefly, the bulk of the damage was from mudslides. The shoulder was in terrible shape, eroded soils had undermined the guard rails and many a post were dangling, suspended in mid-air. Entire hillsides had collapsed onto the highway and I can see why it took an entire day to open it again.

Approaching Hokah, I knew what to expect, floods are almost a way of life there. We even had an ice jam cause one during the winter a year and a half ago. So I've been mystified why people keep building businesses in the low end of town, even the best levees can't prevent everything. What was a surprise was seeing back yards missing from houses on the high end of Hokah. I looked up a street to see a garage in the street, then looked up to see the house above it partially collapsed. Not good.

The local Kwik Trip always floods when the Root River floods, so I wasn't surprised to see the used car lot next to it flooded. What I didn't expect was to see one car floating and others stuck partially in the overflooded plain next to it. I used the picture of the car in a previous post, but I'll use it again because it captures the mood of all this destruction well.

My dad pulled into the Kwik Trip, I didn't say anything because I'd told him the power was out in Hokah before we left. He was surprised to find it closed and we headed up to the downtown of the small village. There the Post Office was open and so was the small cafe, they had a generator going. We stopped in and had breakfast and ruminated on what we'd seen.

One of the things I always liked about Hokah was the wooden footbridge they had near the fire department. As you can see by the photo, it is no more.

We left Hokah and went home, Dad counted 16 major mudslides on the way back. Once home, the forecasts called for more rain, heavy rain.

A Town Spared

With the mandatory evacuation ordered in Houston and more rain coming, it was a long night. The last thing I wanted to see was the town flooded out and given that Ace Telephone is headquartered there, phone service across two counties could be affected. As it was, the Internet was already out and they are the main provider in the area. Being thoroughly modern, I get most of my information off of the Internet these days and the National Weather Service serves as my home page. With no net, there was no way to watch the radar returns on demand.

No matter, I'll watch the Weather Channel, they must be covering things here. Nothing but Hurricane Dean with a few mentions of flooding in Minnesota. It was clear that the old media wasn't keeping up due to their dwelling on the flashy prospects of hurricane damage. Information from local sources was haphazard due to the amount of damage done throughout the area and in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Then there was the Sunday effect, things slow down around here on Sundays, it isn't a big city market.

So information was limited. Mainly, it was text scrolling at the bottom of the screen that gave any idea of what was going on, it seemed as if every road and highway was damaged or closed. There were two deaths in Houston County now, one around Mound Prairie, the other by Spring Grove. Phone calls to and from friends revealed water standing high South of Caledonia and massive road damage North of Houston. I heard about Church members cut off by their driveway simply ceasing to exist.

It was a long night and the next morning at least brought back the Internet. The Root River had come within half a foot of topping the levee at Houston, but the levee held and the water was going down. Friends in Hokah weren't reachable until they called later in the day, they were cut off from every direction and had a beach where their lawn used to be.

My father and I decided to head out and see if anything could be done to help in Houston and promptly ran into a traffic jam of people trying to return home. A humvee with Army National Guard troops was blocking the way into town and questioning everyone returning. Realizing we wouldn't be allowed in, we instead decided to take HWY 16 to Hokah and find out how bad travel was going to be.

A Town Under Threat

It isn't often you get stopped in traffic by a helicopter landing in front of you, but that was the strange situation we found ourselves in Sunday afternoon. With water on the way from Rushford, I'd prodded the rest into going back home before roads closed. Sure enough, the flashers on one of Houston County's newest patrol cars could be seen just entering the outskirts of town. As we slowed to a halt, I heard the helicopter and our family friend said "Look, a news helicopter." I let him know that it was a military helicopter, a UH-60 Blackhawk to be precise and that this meant trouble.

The Blackhawk circled briefly and then went behind us, only to return directly overhead. The van rocked in the downwash of the main rotors and I hurriedly got my camera out.

The helicopter ever so slowly slid down to a landing behind the sheriff's car and we got out of the van for a better look.

I only saw Army personnel get off the UH-60 and I suspected that they had been surveying the levee, or possibly performing search and rescue. It was some time before they took off again and they flew over the levee toward Rushford.

Traffic slowly picked up and we headed home, a sense of urgency and gloom had become the order of the day. I turned on the TV and saw that a mandatory evacuation of Houston had been ordered.


A Town Drowned - Photos, Part 2

All Photos by Randy Roland

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

A Town Drowned - Photos, Part 1

All photos by Randy Roland

This fawn panicked and ran into the water just after the picture was taken. It was swept downstream, most likely to its death.

A Town Drowned Part Three

Photos by Patrick Boone

The first thing I noticed coming into Rushford was this sign, with a pile of snowmobiling signs piled against it. The field it is next to is likely ruined and the house on the outskirts of town had water up another level of bricks earlier in the morning. I was growing more somber with each flooded corn or soy field we passed between Houston and Rushford, the crops that had looked to be exceptional this year were now dying. We parked just before the bridge and walked over it, trees were going by under it along with other debris headed for Houston.

The sound of diesal engines filled the air, farmers had arrived with tractors to run pumps, feverishly trying to pump the water trapped between two levees.

People were gathered, some were tourists who were lost, others just thought it would be fun to see a disaster. The locals had a different attitude, one of shock and loss. A grim sense of humor was the only response to the situation for some of them. Also, a sense of helplessness could be felt as nature's fury is so much bigger than we are.

Only a week before, I'd been in Rushford for unhappy reasons, as we'd hit a deer with our 2005 Subaru Outback and had limped into town. The car took major damage and had to be left at the Kwik Trip parking lot to be towed later. Little did we know what would happen a week later.

This is what a doe will do to a car traveling 55 MPH.

The parking lot on Sunday.


A Town Drowned Part Two

Photos by Patrick Boone

After going back home, a friend called, excited by the prospect of seeing some flooding. He wanted to come out to our place in the country and then go see Rushford. The attitude rubbed me the wrong way, but I wanted to check Rushford out because what happens at the Root River there always comes downstream to Houston. My concern about the town and the fields between won out over being irked at the friend, so the three of us set out for Rushford in the afternoon.

The water was no higher in the Yucatan valley than before, in fact it was visibly going down. There was too much crop damage for my liking and I wondered how things were in Houston proper. Our friend wanted to go North on HWY 76 and didn't really believe it would be blocked. Seeing is believing and so we went there. The bridge goes over the river and I wanted to see how the levee was holding, knowing that Rushford's had failed to save that town.

The Civil Air Patrol was manning the barricades and while the others looked at the swollen river, I talked to the man who was explaining things to drivers. Overhearing him telling people that a volunteer evacuation was under way "for the moment", I asked,"Was the surge here yet?" His reply was less than comforting, "There are 48 inches of water coming this way!"

I rounded up the other two and it took several miles of driving to get them to understand that an evacuation was imminent. We needed to get to Rushford, ASAP.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Town Drowned

After getting the note from my dad, I began checking the news on TV and found out that roads all across the area were closed and that damage was widespread. A phone call from a friend in La Crescent brought news that they were only able to go to La Crosse, HWY 61 was closed by a landslide to the North and HWY 16 was closed to the South. The National Guard had arrived as well and a civil emergency had been declared by Governor Tim Pawlenty. Also, they wouldn't be able to make it down to Caledonia to help tear down the fair booth.

It is about this time during an emergency where I start to go stir crazy, frustrated with ill health and limitations of what I can do to help. So I waited until my dad returned and cursed the Net for being out locally. When he and our neighbor Randy returned, I found out just how bad things were.

Rushford was under up to ten feet of water in the downtown.

Photo by Randy Roland

People had been awakened at around 3:00 AM by water entering their basements and by town sirens going off. One woman had to wade through chest high water on her first floor, only to find her front door blocked by a pickup that had been washed against it. My dad witnessed rescuers chopping a hole in the roof of a house to get another woman out. Cars, trucks, and belongings had all been swept away in the initial torrent of water that crested over a levee in the North part of Rushford. The creek there had flooded quickly and the levee that protects the town from the Root River to the South had trapped the water in town.
Photo by Randy Roland
That's when I knew we had to get moving and get that booth torn down, before more weather hit and before more roads closed. The trip back to Caledonia showed a couple of more minor mudslides since when I'd been there and when we arrived, everyone was taking down their booths. The mood was somber and the lady in the next booth was actually from North of Rushford and didn't know the extent of the damage. I filled her in on what I'd heard and we discussed the known fatalities at the time, four people in Winona County. Everyone scattered for home, a truly grim way to end the festivities of a county fair.

A Wider Disaster

When I saw that HWY 44 out of Caledonia was closed, I knew I was in for a long day. I briefly considered going down to Lansing, Iowa and crossing the Mississippi there, but decided that being determined is one thing and being bullheaded is another. Because of the mudslides on HWY 76, a more circuitous route through high ground appealed to me and that meant going through Spring Grove, Minnesota. From there I'd head North to home and figure out my next move.

Somewhere during all this plotting it had decided to rain again and it was a gloomy drive. About half way to Spring Grove, the rain came again and visibility became bad just outside the small Norwegian town. I pulled over by the local bank and called into Church to say nobody from Elders Quorum would make the meeting. More bad news, that things were the same across the river in Wisconsin and I wasn't the only one who couldn't make it. So I went home and reported what I'd seen to my dad, made plans to go to the fairgrounds in Caledonia to tear down the booth later, then crashed for a nap after a very long week.

The power coming back on roused me from my stupor and I came out of my room to find a note from my father:

PAT -- 0920
Went to Rushford with Randy to survey damage
Whole town is under water

Photo by Randy Roland

To be continued...

The Flood Disaster of 2007

Photo by Patrick Boone

I really don't know where to begin, it has been a horrible weekend to end a tough week of a dismal summer. We'd been in drought conditions in our little corner of Minnesota and had finally gotten the rain we'd needed to save the crops over the last several weeks.

But then came Saturday, when the rain never ended and came in torrential downpours. I'd been manning the Houston County Republicans booth at the Houston County Fair and traffic had been above expectations Wednesday through Friday. Saturday was like being at a morgue, the rain and temperatures that never exceeded 62 degrees made it a dreary affair.

I was concerned about flooding as the water table was saturated, with nowhere for runoff to go. It was only that evening that I realized how bad things were going to be, remarking to my father that I'd probably not be able to go to church in Onalaska, WI the next morning due to flooding. He was skeptical, but I knew things were going to be bad and started formulating alternate routes around the Root River if State HWY 16 Houston to Hokah was flooded as usual. I'd check the info on the Net when I got up in the morning.

The power went out and didn't come back until around 10:30 or 11:00 am. With no Net and running a little behind because I needed to go to the PEC meeting at 8:30 am, I set out just before 7:15. The first thing I noticed was that we'd escaped major flooding in Yucatan Valley thanks to the creek beds having been considerably widened and deepened by 2000's massive flood. Then I started to have to veer around minor mudslides, nothing too much to worry about. As I traveled farther North, it became more apparent how many fields were flooded, with soy underwater and corn standing in one or two feet of water. Now the threat of drought had been replaced by destruction by water.

Campers and RV's passed by me, heading for higher ground and I noticed some parked at a local rural Lutheran church. Not a good sign, I thought. Sure enough, got up to HWY 16 and there was a pickup blocking the road, along with an earthen berm partially across one lane. Okay, expected that, so I turned into town and pulled to the side to call the Elders Quorum 2nd Counselor to see if he could make it to the meeting in time. Turns out he wasn't even in the area, so I decided to take a longer way to get to the La Crosse area, figuring I could even go to I-90 if the other road paralleling the Root River was flooded. That's when I found out the bridge at Houston was closed.

Being the determined sort, I headed back and took HWY 76 to Caledonia, going the really long way to Hokah and then La Crescent on. Now I began to run into more mudslides, some blocking entire lanes, but nothing I couldn't get around. After far too much time driving, I arrived at the intersection at the North end of Caledonia and the road block there. The road to Hokah was closed.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

I-35W Bridge Collapse in Minneapolis

There comes a point where one senses when another catastrophe has happened. I was walking down the driveway from the mailbox I'm planning to repaint and saw my father walking up the driveway toward me. That sense of catastrophe I'd felt when the space shuttle Challenger blew up filled my mind as we slowly converged. Sure enough, another disaster had struck, Fox News Channel had just broken its regular programming to show the wreckage of the I-35W bridge.

Once inside I watched the confusion and rising smoke evoking memories of 9/11. But I had no sense of menace, it was more akin to what I felt when the San Francisco earthquake destroyed the Bay Bridge years ago. I said a silent prayer and surveyed the scene, keenly aware that lives had been lost. With relief I saw the school bus, emergency door wide open, refuting the rumor of a bus going off the bridge. Still, it was clear that vehicles were missing, others were visibly mangled, and lives permanently changed.

I've been over that bridge and hadn't really paid any attention to it. Unless a bridge is really scenic, I don't think much about it and I imagine that's true for many people. You just expect it to be there and continue standing while you travel over it.

The stunned reaction of people to its collapse reminds me how ill prepared people are for the fact that they are very, very small in the scheme of things. Oddly enough, I expect this kind of thing to happen and just pray it doesn't happen to me. Answers are being sought for, people want to know why this happened, want to assign blame. Perhaps the cause will be found, perhaps it won't.

In the end, I think the stories of the survivors will matter more. Already, we have been told that motorists didn't run for their lives afterward, but checked each car for survivors. If true, that's a good change in our culture since 9/11.

On the flip side, the Democrats are already trying to blame Governor Pawlenty for it, typically playing their rabidly partisan games by using a disaster for perceived gain. There appears to be no depths they won't sink to and I weary of it. There are families grieving, people maimed, people dead, and people missing. They matter the most.