Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

After the flood: humor and hope October 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:27 AM
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YOU CAN CHOOSE to laugh or to cry, or to laugh after you’ve cried.

You can choose to give up or to be strong.

In Zumbro Falls, you’ll find humor and hope in a town overtaken almost three weeks ago by a flash flood that damaged nearly every home and business.

Sure, residents of this small southeastern Minnesota community are frustrated and tired and angry. Yet, they remain hopeful. They can still laugh between tears.



This sign hangs on the garage of a split-level house along Water Street in Zumbro Falls.



This is the now uninhabitable flooded house where the humorous sign, above photo, hangs. You can see it between the open garage doors. Floodwaters rose to about the top of the front door into the home.



To the right, just above the front door, you can see a line marking how high the water rose on the split-level house, above image.



Water Street seems appropriately named given the residences along the street that were flooded.



I don't know whether this fish was hung on this front porch before or after the Zumbro Falls flood, but I'm guessing afterward.



It seems ironic that a bottled water cooler stands beneath the words "WATER LEVEL" on the Zumbro Falls Fire Hall.



Was Z.F. Storage for sale before or after the flood? I don't know, but the structure is now labeled with this warning: LIMITED ENTRY. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. THIS STRUCTURE IS UNINHABITABLE."



A sign of hope in Zumbro Falls, next to a gas station.


© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Worry, uncertainty prevail in flood-ravaged Zumbro Falls October 11, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 4:28 PM
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Jackie demonstrates how her 2-year-old great grandson scrubbed muck from the side of Rod's Service & Motel after floodwaters inundated downtown Zumbro Falls.


LONG-TIME ZUMBRO FALLS resident Jackie sits on a bench outside her son Rod’s combination motel, car wash, convenience store and service station along Minnesota Highway 60, the town’s main drag in this flood-ravaged community.

“It (the late September flood) took away their whole livelihood,” she says, noting the ruined tools and machines inside the water-damaged complex. A horizontal black line and the word “water” mark the floodwater depth, about seven feet high inside this building.



Just to the left of the motel sign, a black line marks the water height.


Her son and his family lost their home, too. Jackie still has a home as she lives outside the flooded area.

“It (the floodwaters) took the whole town,” she concludes. “I don’t think anyone was spared.”

Not even her. A six-bedroom, two-story apartment building that she owns next to Rod’s Service, was filled with water. She had the apartment sold; final papers were due to be signed on September 30.



Jackie was set to close on the apartment building in the background, next to her son's service station complex, just days after the flood. The water rose to the point where the siding color changes. Jackie also noted that the dairy trailer (left) floated from behind the station and slammed into a fence to the left in this photo.


Surprisingly, 77-year-old Jackie isn’t bitter. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone,” she says.

She’s lived here since 1958, never seen anything quite like the September 23/24 flooding of the Zumbro. Other times, the river “doesn’t quite get in your door,” she remembers. “But this time, boom!”

The flash flood gave residents no time to prepare.



A flood-damaged home along Water Street, a block off the main street.



Another home destroyed by the September flood.


Jackie appreciates the tremendous response from neighbors and volunteers—specifically naming high school juniors and seniors who came from nearby Lake City to help the residents of Zumbro Falls.



Flood clean-up volunteers are directed to the registration site in downtown.


Yet, the future of her community, of her son’s business, remains in limbo. “I don’t know at this rate if anyone knows where they stand.”

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The personal anguish in Zumbro Falls

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 4:23 PM
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“HOW ARE YOU FOLKS DOING?” I ask. In retrospect that seems like an idiotic question given the man, woman and an elementary-aged girl are working outside a flood-damaged home in Zumbro Falls.

But I don’t know what else to say and I genuinely do care about their welfare. The woman’s answer is unemotional and I can’t even tell you exactly what she said because her answer to my second question still burns.

“Is it OK if I take your picture?” I ask.

“I don’t want my picture anywhere,” she lashes out at me.

I do not expect this explosive reaction.

Then I turn my head toward the blonde-haired girl, who is sitting on the bumper of a pick-up truck to which a trailer is attached. I can’t even tell you what was in the trailer or the truck. But I remember that little girl’s face.

“You look sad,” I say, looking directly at her. She doesn’t respond. She just sits there.

At that moment, in that child’s face, I see the personal anguish, the fear, the devastation, the loss, that this late September flood has wreaked upon residents of this southeastern Minnesota community. The toll reaches far beyond the physical destruction of homes and businesses and possessions—including a trashed child’s red bicycle I’ve seen inside this family’s open garage.

This family is hurting. And as much as I wish this stressed-out woman had not taken her anger and frustration out on me, I understand.

There will be no photos of them, only my words, her anger, to show the tragic faces of this natural disaster.


The flood-damaged garage of the Zumbro Falls woman who would not allow me to photograph her.


© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Waiting on FEMA in Zumbro Falls

“WE’RE ALL REDNECKS,” she says.

But she doesn’t mean the term in a negative way. Rather Tracy Yennie implies that she and her neighbors in flood-ravaged Zumbro Falls are hard-scrabble, independent folks who are determined to stay put.

“The whole town is awesome. Everybody knows everybody,” says Yennie, who’s called this place home all 31 years of her life. Up until the September 23/24 floods, she and her family lived in a house several hundred yards from the Zumbro River along “the river road,” Wabasha County Road 68, just outside of town.

Since the flood deposited four feet of mud and cinder block in her basement leaving her home uninhabitable, she’s been camping—in a shed on her property—and waiting on FEMA. “They’re just dragging their feet. They’re not affected,” she says, the frustration in her voice palpable.

With winter approaching, she’s worried about where she—where anyone in this town—will live.

“This has been the most stressful two weeks of my life,” Yennie says as she hangs out next to the Salvation Army trailer, across the street from the fire hall/city hall turned command center on a Sunday afternoon.



Tracy Yennie hangs out in downtown Zumbro Falls.


For weeks now this mother of four boys, ages 2 – 9, has been sifting through her life, she says, trying to decide which of her belongings to keep and which to throw.

Early on, when she talked with her boyfriend on the phone as he watched the river rise and cross the road toward her home (she was out of town), she knew what was most important. She told him to save the baby pictures. But he couldn’t find them. Yennie later found the box of pictures buried in mud. She threw the photos in a bucket of water, dried and saved them.

She understands what can, and can’t, be replaced.

For the most part, Yennie sounds strong. But you can see the worry in her tired eyes and sometimes hear it in her voice, when the tough veneer cracks just a bit. “People are starting to get stressed,” she says, repeating that word, “stressed.”

She has no flood insurance. Few residents did. The town isn’t in a flood plain, she says.



A flood-damaged home in downtown Zumbro Falls.



The owner of this water-ravaged home along Minnesota Highway 60, the main route through Zumbro Falls, still has a sense of humor as Halloween approaches.


Despite all of her worries about the future, despite her anger at FEMA, Yennie is quick to praise the Red Cross, the church groups and others who have thronged to this community to assist flood victims.



A Red Cross Disaster Relief vehicle pulls into the command center at the fire hall Sunday afternoon.


Twenty-four men from Barron, Wisconsin, with Mennonite Disaster Services, came to her aid, helping with clean-up at her riverside home. She’s grateful to them.



Inside the Zumbro Falls fire hall, a Thank You Wall recognizes those who have helped with flood recovery.


Now, as Yennie ponders a question about life someday returning to “normal,” she laughs. “What’s normal?” she asks. “Normal is a setting on a washing machine.”



Trash containers line gutted businesses in downtown Zumbro Falls as the community works toward returning to "normal."


© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


A trip to view the fall colors detours in Zumbro Falls


On Sunday afternoon my husband and I headed east on Minnesota Highway 60 to enjoy the fall colors. We intended to drive to Wabasha, then aim north toward Lake City and maybe Red Wing before returning home to Faribault.

Along the way, we stopped at Holden Lutheran Church near Kenyon so I could snap a few photos. We both appreciate old churches and would have lingered longer except the pastor was in the middle of his sermon and we didn’t want to enter the sanctuary and interrupt.



The Rev. Bernt Julius Muus, the founder of St. Olaf College in Northfield, was a pastor at Holden Lutheran Church near Kenyon. The congregation was organized in 1856 and this church was built in 1924.


From there, we drove to Zumbrota for a picnic lunch at the historic covered bridge.



The covered bridge in Zumbrota dates to 1869 and is promoted in Zumbrota as the only covered bridge in Minnesota. However, I am aware of another covered bridge, that one in Mantorville.


Then we resumed our Sunday afternoon drive, traveling briefly on U.S. Highway 52 before exiting onto Highway 60.

After passing through the town of Mazeppa, we reached Zumbro Falls, a community of less than 200 that was, just 2 ½ weeks ago, ravaged by the floodwaters of the Zumbro River.

We pulled our car a block off main street and parked. I grabbed my camera and notebook. And that was the beginning of the end of our planned afternoon to view the fall colors. Instead, we viewed homes and businesses extensively damaged by the flood. And we spoke to some of the people of Zumbro Falls before driving about five miles further to Hammond.

I am sharing their stories in a series of posts that I hope will help you better understand the devastation from a personal perspective. I could have spent many more hours talking to flood victims. I could have dug deeper. I could have taken more photos.

But I think my stories are emotional enough, deep enough, to convey the frustration, the anger, the resilience, the gratefulness of a community that is suffering.

Typically, I would publish these posts over a several-day span. However, these stories need to be told now. Not tomorrow. Not the day after. But today.

So, please, take time to walk with me through portions of Zumbro Falls and Hammond, where you’ll meet Tracy and Jackie and Susie and Katie. They are strong, opinionated women. I have no doubt they will overcome this present obstacle in their lives.

Yet, even though they are tough as nails, they still need our help, our prayers, our support.

Of all the questions I asked of them, I failed to ask the most important: “Is there anything I can do for you?”


PLEASE WATCH FOR these posts as I begin publishing them this afternoon. If you have thoughts to share, share them.

Although my Sunday afternoon did not go as I envisioned, I am thankful for the detour from the planned route. My eyes and heart were opened. I saw destruction and beauty—that beauty being the irrepressible strength of the human spirit.



Beautiful fall colors provided the backdrop for this pile of destroyed appliances and other debris in Hammond.


© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling