Rushford: Pawlenty's Katrina
Inaction at the state level has Rushford area people moving from cooperative recovery to collective anger. "We worked side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow to get our town cleaned up," Rushford Mayor Les Ladewig told a dozen Minnesota House members of the...
Inaction at the state level has Rushford area people moving from cooperative recovery to collective anger.
"We worked side-by-side, elbow-to-elbow to get our town cleaned up," Rushford Mayor Les Ladewig told a dozen Minnesota House members of the capital investment (bonding) committee Sept. 5, 18 days after a flash flood swamped two-thirds of the city. "Let's hope you will help us by working side-by-side and elbow-to-elbow to get this (special session funding) done."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not hear 45-minutes of organized statements made to the committee. He had visited Rushford, told workers in a food shelter "we need to see commitment and strength and hope," and left before the legislative meeting began. "The only way we can help is a special session," said Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, asking the governor to set a date. "The hold up isn't me - I'm in agreement," said Pawlenty. They sparred and the governor left.
Later, Tom Witt, who lost $650,000 in his pharmacies, told the committee, "We don't need the kind of crap we saw this morning."
Rushford is in crisis.
"Without help this could be another Katrina. People will walk away," said Chuck Ness, who is new to the area.
Thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars of goods and services have helped cleanup, but funding is needed for recovery. "We need money," said a county commissioner. Rep. Ken Tschumper said when the tornado hit St. Peter, the governor and legislature had $20 million in place in 10 days.
Decisions are being made and quickly whether homeowners and businesses should fix up, rebuild or walk away. Rushford-Peterson Schools has already lost 14 students and exceptional effort is made to bus 27 students from more distant relocations.
Early loss figures were highly inaccurate when FEMA found enough to make the area eligible for a disaster declaration. Improved figures corroborated from several sources indicate $35 million in losses in residences, $27 million in businesses and $15 million in public costs for a total of $77 million. The flood damaged 490 of 766 homes and businesses with 60 homes likely lost; 58 of 70 businesses impacted and 463 of 600 jobs affected.
The staggering losses have impressed even veteran volunteers. One Red Cross worker said Rushford is a model of recovery and how it should be done. "You are so resilient," said another worker from Tennessee in his 17th Red Cross disaster. Rushford has never begged; it is used to being independent and self-sufficient. No longer. "We have done all we can and now we need help," said Ted Roberton, the head of one of two banks that flooded. Banks are ineligible for SBA loans.
Good Shepherd Lutheran Services is a 40-year-old multi-service agency including a nursing home. While above flood water, it became an evacuee center but still doesn't have drinkable water; no one in the city does because there is e-coli in the water system. Administrator Dennis Reiman says there were many costs and damages as a result of the flood and people came to work in their pajamas because 17 employees were victims of the flood. To legislators he said, "We need you to do everything you can to help us because we are the largest employer and if we don't exist, it will affect a lot of people."
Rushford has become a pawn in the political in-fighting of St. Paul, a kicking under the table we do not understand and do not want to understand. What southeast Minnesota and particularly Rushford needs is action that leads to genuine pump-priming of an economy which is at a standstill.
"I have grave concerns about the survival of our business community," said Lee Humble, president of the local Chamber of Commerce. "I hope you carry these words to the governor," he told legislators: "We will be watching what you do."
Darrin and Melissa Johnson lived in a mobile home court with their seven children. Their trailer was one of 37 with water to the top of the roof. "FEMA has offered us $2,000. I can't fix a trailer home for that," she said crying. "I don't know where we're going to go or what we're going to do."
MYRON J. SCHOBER, EDITOR, TRI-COUNTY RECORD, RUSHFORD