Austin, Minn. — As news helicopters hovered overhead, spectators gathered in clumps around downtown Austin to watch water from the Cedar River rush through the streets. Helen Johnson surveyed the scene with her grandchildren, standing on a cement bridge. She used to live in this now-flooded neighborhood, and says she has first-hand experience of what it's like to rebuild after this type of disaster.
"They are going to have a heck of a mess to clean up, that's for sure," says Johnson. "It's a lot of hard work. My heart goes out to them because it's terrible, really terrible."
Johnson says from what she can tell, this is the worst flooding to hit Austin in years.
Blocks away, park land has turned into a massive lake. Larry Gulickson stands just outside Austin Transportation, the garage where he works. As he watched the water quickly spreading, he said he expected his business would soon be flooded.
"This isn't going to get any better. This time it can only get worse," says Gulickson. "It takes all of that stuff north of us about 12 hours to get here, and it's getting close to that time."
Out in the distance, two men try to rescue a turquoise pickup truck. They stand in water up to their waists. The water's still expected to grow higher, since the Cedar River won't crest until around midnight.
Gov. Pawlenty called the situation worse than he expected during a stop at the Austin airport. He had just completed a helicopter tour of the region to survey the flooding.
"We are in the very early stages of assessing this, but there's one thing I know for sure. Minnesotans rally around each other in times of crisis, whether it is a tornado or blizzard or flood -- and they will do it again in these circumstances," Pawlenty says. "This presents a real challenge to Austin and surrounding areas, but these communities and their leaders are strong. Their resilience will shine through, and we're going to get them as much help as quickly as we can."
Pawlenty said local officials were preparing a damage assessment that could lead to state and federal assistance. The governor also said he planned to use his time with President Bush on Thursday to press the case for relief, encouraging him to see the damage for himself if possible.
Some people stacked sandbags around their homes and businesses. Classes were canceled at many schools throughout the area, and the nursing home in Adams was evacuated.
The rain stopped falling by late morning. Austin got 3.87 inches of rain, the National Weather Service said, not as much as the city's record one-day rainfall of 4.55 set Aug. 29, 1947. Albert Lea, in nearby Freeborn County, got 7.22 inches over 36 hours, the weather service said. An estimated 10 inches of rain or more fell in some areas.
The weather service predicted minor flooding of the Zumbro River in Rochester.
Ryan Miller, an extension agent with the University of Minnesota, said he didn't think the downpour would damage crops too badly. The 10-day forecast called for dry days and the corn and soybean harvests haven't started, he said.
"The 10-day is looking dry," he said, "so it's pretty early to tell if it will hinder harvesting. There may be some localized situations where people have a lot of water, but it won't be in every field."
Farm Service Agency officials were surveying the damage and said it was too early to tell whether farmers would need state or federal help for crop damage, said Brian Paul, a program technician with the agency.
Several highways and county roads were closed, including a 10-mile section of Interstate 90 between Brownsville and Dexter, U.S. Highway 65 in Albert Lea, Minnesota 56 at Taopi and Minnesota 251 in Maple Island, along with many rural roads. Water several feet deep flowed over I-90 in several parts of the closed section, the Transportation Department said.
I-90 and most of the other roads were reopened by Wednesday afternoon.
In Adams, Rick Clinton got his three daughters out of their basement bedrooms just before the windows broke and the basement flooded with 8 feet of water. Amanda, Amy and Katie Clinton all got out safely, he said. He set up pumps in the backyard to remove water from the basement.
The city's maintenance supervisor, John Kiefer, said 12 to 20 homes had flooded basements.
The rain began falling across the region Tuesday night and didn't let up for several hours.
Workers used boats to rescue residents of a home near Adams and a truck driver whose rig went into a median along I-90 near Dexter, Mower County Sheriff Terese Amazi said. A car was swept away by rushing water moments after its driver got out of the vehicle, she said.
Plumbers fielded calls for help with flooded basements and overworked sump pumps.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report)