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Hundreds flee Minnesota floods

A powerful, lingering storm system dumps almost a half-foot of rain on a swath of southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, causing widespread flooding that displaced hundreds of homeowners
Image: Olivia Leavitt and Kenzie Kubis, canoe through the flooded streets of Arcadia, Wis.
Olivia Leavitt, standing left, and friends Katie, and Kenzie Kubis, canoe through the flooded streets of Arcadia, Wis., on Thursday.Todd Richmond / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Flooding caused by heavy rain that's lashed parts of the upper Midwest forced the evacuation Friday of dozens of homes in the small Minnesota city of Owatonna, where swollen waterways closed bridges and threatened to swamp neighborhoods.

Five businesses in Owatonna, a city of about 24,000 residents 65 miles south of Minneapolis, were closed due to floodwater from two creeks and the Straight River, Steele County Commissioner Tom Shea said. The creeks were receding Friday morning but the river was still rising. Authorities were keeping a close eye on two neighborhoods that may need to be evacuated, he said. No injuries had been reported.

A powerful, lingering storm system has dumped almost a half-foot of rain on a swath of southern Minnesota and western Wisconsin, causing widespread flooding that displaced hundreds of homeowners and forced businesses to shut down and schools to cancel classes. Flooding on Thursday also displaced the residents of a South Dakota trailer park.

Friday's forecast called for dry conditions for much of the region, offering a breather for exhausted emergency personnel who have been working long hours to deal with the flooding. But some rivers and streams were likely to continue to rise from as much as 10.5 inches of rain Thursday, and another storm was expected to creep into the region on Saturday.

"It's a really dangerous situation here. We're doing a lot of work to try to hold our ground here," Owatonna Fire Chief Mike Johnson said. He said emergency crews are spending a lot of time trying to maintain the city's critical infrastructure.

In southeast Minnesota, more than a dozen homes near a dam in the small town of Oronoco were evacuated for fear that torrential rains had weakened the dam. At least 10 school districts had canceled classes.

About 90 miles east of Owatonna in Arcadia, Wis., emergency officials evacuated 343 homes on Thursday as 3-foot floodwaters surged through the city's downtown area. Nearly half of the city's 2,400 residents were told to seek shelter elsewhere. Arcadia had a slight chance of rain Friday, with rain more likely Saturday.

On Friday morning, the water in downtown Arcadia had receded dramatically and traffic was flowing down Main Street again. Some people who evacuated homes in that area on Thursday were returning Friday, though emergency officials didn't have numbers.

But while the two creeks that flooded downtown were falling, the Trempealeau River was rising and was near the top of the city's two main bridges. Residents snapped pictures as emergency workers moved in sandbags by truck near the riverbanks.

The Trempealeau was expected to crest Friday afternoon a foot and a half over flood stage, threatening homes and businesses along the river. Emergency officials issued a voluntary evacuation order for people on the less populous northwest side of the river, where water was standing in streets.

Tara Toulou, 37, said she and her husband have over 2 feet of water in the basement of their home near the river. They had moved all their belongings and furniture to their second story and moved in with friends nearby.

"I was bawling yesterday. I was afraid I was going to lose everything. It's unreal. Instead of going down, it seems to be going up. Hopefully our house doesn't get washed away," she said.

Alberto Cadena, 34, lives on the edge of the river with his wife, two children and his mother. He said his house had about 2 inches of water in the basement. The family has suitcases in his truck ready to go, he said.

"Hopefully the river will stay there and won't come any further," he said.

Crews also worked to evacuate 80 homes in the nearby city of Black River Falls.

The Wisconsin National Guard distributed thousands of sandbags to municipalities, including 20,000 to Arcadia and 10,000 each to Neillsville and Osseo.

Minnesota and Wisconsin's governors declared emergencies for large segments of their states Thursday, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty planned to tour flood-damaged areas Friday. The National Weather Service said 3 inches to 5 inches of rain fell across parts of both states on Thursday. As much as 10.5 inches fell on Amboy, Minn.

"It's only going to get worse," said Casey Radatz, a 31-year-old semitrailer driver from Arcadia, as he sat Thursday on his bike in a poncho watching the swollen, peanut-butter colored Trempealeau River rage by. "Not good."

In Owatonna, high water closed the bridges that carry traffic over the Straight River, making travel around the city difficult. Roger Warehime of Owatonna Public Utilities says about a third of the town lost power Friday morning when a substation failed due to the flooding.

Interstate 35 was closed in both directions south of Owatonna due to the flooding, and traffic was being detoured onto other roads.

Johnson, the city's fire chief, said a water rescue team lost a boat Friday morning to debris in the water.

Friday was supposed to be homecoming for Owatonna High School, but a parade and football game were postponed.

Pastor John Lestock, of Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna, said Thursday that water poured into his home's basement, seeping through the floor and coming in through windows. More than 3 inches of water covered the floor of his church, he said.

A Red Cross shelter was established in southwest Minnesota. The chapter's executive director, Joyce Jacobs, said utilities were shutting off the gas and electricity in some homes with water in the basement.

Jacobs said water damaged homes and saturated farm fields and ditches. Half the roads in the small town of Truman were completely covered by water.

"One of the first things we saw was a car, and the water was up to the doors," she said Thursday. "It came up so quick, people didn't have time to move their cars."