Recovery Slow for Some in Northern Minnesota Flooding

By JOHN LUNDY | November 2, 2012

Trudy Fredericks and Ryan Murphy were in a celebratory mood despite persistent rain as they drove from Home Depot to their nearly finished home in the Fond du Lac neighborhood on June 19.

Three years after they purchased property in the neighborhood that drew them back to Fredericks’ hometown, after a $125,000 investment and countless hours of sweat equity, first on a garage and then a modest two-story house, the couple were within days of moving into their first home.

“We had pulled into the driveway, and we were trying to let the rain subside before we made a run for it into the house,” said Fredericks, 39. “And we were patting ourselves on the back at what a beautiful job we had done.”

They would never move into their house.

The 10-inch rainfall on June 19 and 20 changed plans for the couple and for people from Two Harbors to Duluth to Sturgeon Lake.

For much of the region, life quickly returned to normal. But for some residents, normalcy is elusive. As they continue working on their partially refinished homes or bunking with friends or living in sparsely furnished apartments, some feel forgotten, the Duluth News Tribune reported.

“It was real extreme,” said Laurel Sanders, an artist who lives with her husband, John Donahue, in a Fond du Lac neighborhood cottage that the St. Louis River flowed through during the flood. “And (then) it was just gone, and everybody else was just fine. In a couple of weeks, other than some road patches, everybody else was back to business as usual.

“It’s a whole different thing out here, where most of us are just getting back to our houses.”

A much smaller group of people will never get back to their houses. Fredericks and Murphy may be the only people who never got to spend even one night in their home.

The rain wreaked havoc on the massive bluff sheltering their property. A mudslide slammed trees and debris into the garage, although it held its ground. Another mudslide careened into St. Louis County property on the opposite side of the house.

The house itself was untouched. But when inspectors surveyed the property, they determined that the unstable bluff could someday unleash a third mudslide directly at the house. It was condemned, and the city of Duluth has notified the couple that it will be demolished.

Fredericks, who works for University of Minnesota Extension, and Murphy, a carpenter, had been “camping out” and living with family and friends while they built their house. Since the flood, they’ve lived nomadic lives, currently staying in a house on the North Shore that’s on the market, working on it in lieu of rent. But they know they’ll have to get out when it sells.

The city, which will assume ownership of their Fond du Lac property, has applied for compensation for the couple as part of the flood-relief bill the Minnesota Legislature passed in August. They’ve been told they’ll likely receive the appraised value of the property as compensation, but until that’s resolved, they’re in limbo.

Even if they get the money, they’re not sure what they will do.

“It’s possible that we could buy a different house,” Fredericks said. “It’s possible that we could build again. I don’t know if we have it in us to do that again, right away. To turn around and do it immediately is kind of soul-sucking.”

Most other residents of Duluth’s oldest neighborhood have been able to return to their homes, but it has been a long, slow process.

During a recent interview, Sanders sat on lawn furniture in the front room of the home the couple has lived in for 17 years. Before the flood, the two-seat wooden lawn chair was across Cass Street from the house, facing the river.

Long after the flood, Sanders discovered the top of the chair sticking out of a pile of branches and debris on the opposite side of their neighbors’ house. She and Donahue pulled it out, he did some repairs, they power-washed it four times, scrubbed it and degreased it. Along with an armchair that the Willard Munger Inn didn’t want anymore and a small table with two chairs, that’s all the furniture they have in their mostly bare front room.

But they finished their kitchen within the past couple of weeks, except for the ceiling. New wood floors are in place in some rooms. The new furnace and water heater have been installed – above the wavy, muddy water line that’s about 18 inches up on their bathroom door.

It took about a month after the flood before she and her husband could return to their property, Sanders said, and much of the summer they relied on a camper – a new camper, because its predecessor was destroyed in the flood – for water and cooking.

“It was such a gradual process reclaiming the property, that everything happened the way an old-time photo would develop,” she said.

Cass Street, where Sanders and Donahue live, follows a bend in the river and becomes Water Street. That’s where Canadian natives Thomas and Evelyn Fearnall only very recently moved back into the home where they’ve lived for 30-some years.

Firefighters awakened them at 3:30 a.m. on June 20 and told them they had 10 minutes to get out, recalled Evelyn Fearnall, 83. “We didn’t take anything but our pills,” she said.

They were the last people in the neighborhood to get out in their vehicle, Evelyn Fearnall said. Fortunately, their daughter had ample space in her home near the Miller Hill Mall. “I don’t think she thought we were going to be staying for the length of time we did,” she said with a chuckle.

Many of the neighbors were worse off than they were, she said. Still, many of their possessions were destroyed, and flooring and walls in the house had to be replaced. “Our grandchildren did a lot of work, painting and insulating and just about everything else,” she said.

They had insurance on a trailer that was destroyed. Otherwise, they dipped into savings to cover expenses. They don’t regret not having flood insurance.

“The people that did have it aren’t very happy with that,” she said. “If we had paid 30 years of the insurance that they wanted, we’re still ahead without it.”

Despite the flood, the Fearnalls love where they live.

“It’s beautiful out here,” Evelyn Fearnall said. “Most people don’t know how beautiful it is. We don’t like them to know.”

Loren Matson also loved his home.

Matson, a water quality inspector for the city of Duluth, bought his dream house in Sturgeon Lake in 2006. The house, built in 1999, was small – about 500 square feet on the lower level with a loft of about 300 square feet, Matson said. But it was on four acres of land on Cathedral Pines Drive overlooking the Moose Horn River. Pine trees lined the road, and big oak trees framed the yard.

“It was a beautiful place,” Matson said. “I liked watching the birds.”

When he left for the 50-mile commute to work on June 20, the water was higher than he’d ever seen it, so he packed an overnight bag. He didn’t get back until Friday evening, paddling up to the deck with a buddy in a neighbor’s canoe.

But he’ll never live in the house again. FEMA estimated the damage at 95 percent. He bought the house for $159,000, but it was appraised at $140,000 in 2010. When the flood hit, he still owed $153,000.

Investing the $60,000 to $70,000 needed to repair flood damage just wouldn’t make sense, Matson said. He stopped making mortgage payments and found an apartment in Miller Hill Manor. He expects to live there until he can retire six years from now and move to Arizona.

“The apartment is OK, but it’s not me,” Matson said. “It’s filled with old people.”

In Moose Lake, Dan Berg and his mother tried to get flood insurance for their 165-year-old home years ago, Berg said, but were denied because the house was said to be in a once-in-500-years flood plain.

The house was 95 percent destroyed in the June flood.

They can’t afford the $65,000 loan it would take to fix up the home, Berg said. His mother has moved into an apartment, and he’s living with a friend but planning to move to Duluth, where he found a new job.

“It’s been hell, just pure hell,” Berg said. “I took about a month off to try and help with everything, trying to see if we could get it livable and just looking at what we had, and everything we had was gone. We had four or five very large piles of stuff that we had to take out of the place and just watch it get thrown away as far as furniture, pictures, livelihood, everything.”

His grandfather purchased the house when he was a young man, Berg said. “It was supposed to go down to me, but unfortunately it’s not going to do that now.”

The transition has been especially hard on his mother, who is 65 and suffers from a lung problem.

“It was really heartbreaking watching her go there every day, just looking at the place and just crying,” Berg said. “Everything she had was right there, and now it’s gone.

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