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Roseau struggles to recover from flooding
By Tom Robertson
Minnesota Public Radio
July 11, 2002

Seven new counties in flood-ravaged northwest Minnesota, have been added to the list of those eligible for federal disaster assistance. That brings the total to 17. The region was devastated last month by heavy rains and overflowing rivers. Damage estimates are approaching $500 million. It's left many farmers and business owners wondering if they'll be able to recover.

A major challenge for residents of Roseau: what to do with the mess. See a larger image.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)

Roseau's once-bustling Main Street looks more like a ghost town. A supermarket stands empty. Many stores and restaurants have closed. The few that are open are in disarray and filled with the smells of bleach and cleaning solvents. It's been a month since the Roseau River overflowed its banks and flooded 95 percent of the town. The recovery has begun, but there's a long way to go.

Norm Flagstad's hardware store is back in business, but it hasn't been easy.

"(It's been) long days, long days," he says. "Five in the morning I get down here, and I go home at anywhere from six to nine at night."

Flagstad lost about $60,000 in damaged merchandise. He had flood insurance, which will cover some of his losses. So he considers himself lucky. But he's worried about the rest of downtown. Low interest loans from the Small Business Administration are available, but he says for some businesses, that won't be enough.

"They already owe money. They don't want to have a loan. They can't afford to have another loan," he says. "So they're in limbo. If they don't get help, they're maybe not going to come back. And that is critical to being a successful business in my case. Because the traffic that these other businesses create is traffic that I need."

Officials, and store owners, are pushing hard for Gov. Ventura to call a special legislative session to deal with the flood recovery. House and Senate leaders support a special session. There's been no indication Ventura will call one. See a larger image.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)

Across the street, Mattson Pharmacy is open, but all of the store shelves are empty and wrapped in plastic. The only commerce taking place is at the pharmacy counter at the back of the store, where Dean Mattson fills prescriptions.

"It's been a very, very trying time," he says. "It is taking everybody's resources, both financial and physical, and stretching them to the limits. And that's the biggest thing right now, is everybody's waiting to see, you know, is there going to be some money available for a lot of these stores to reopen."

Roseau city officials say insurance will cover some of the downtown damage. But it may take an additional $17 million dollars to close the gap. Most buildings need major repairs. Some will have to be torn down entirely. Mayor Jeff Pelowski says the town's business community is in dire straights. He figures that without help from the state, about a third of them will close for good.

"There's some (of the buildings) that have been opened up in a shell, but it's a depressing sight. I mean, these people carry the ball, and without them, I think our whole fabric is in trouble."

Mayor Pelowski is pushing hard for Gov. Ventura to call a special legislative session to deal with the problem. House and Senate leaders support a special session. There's been no indication Ventura will call one. Yet Pelowski remains hopeful.

The theater downtown closed because of the flood. It's yet to reopen.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)

"I hope we're not being naive, but that's what we're being led to believe, and that's what I'm optimistically hoping is going to happen," he says.

It may be more of an uphill battle for farmers in the region. Curt Nyegaard is the Roseau County extension director. He says things weren't good for northwest Minnesota farmers even before the floods.

"Actually, to use one adjective for it, it's catastrophic, is what it amounts to," he says.

And there may not be much help for farmers. The new federal farm bill has no provisions for disaster assistance. President Bush has said he'll veto any new emergency measures for farmers. Nyegaard says it may push many over the edge.

"Long term, we're looking at some serious consequences of maybe some people having to get out of the business," Nyegaard says. "If they don't get some financial aid to bail them out, so to speak, this year, in 2002, they probably won't be farming in 2003."

About half of Roseau County's 400,000 crop acres were damaged by flooding. For the town of Roseau, the blow is softened by the town's strong industrial base. Roseau's largest employer, Polaris Industries, was undamaged by the flood and is back to full production.

But there are some small communities in northwest Minnesota where nearly every job is tied to farming. Experts say for those towns, this latest round of flooding could be the final blow to an already wounded agriculture economy.