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Floods Lay Waste to Farms Throughout Upper Midwest

Disaster: Significant damage is reported. Hardest hit is northern Minnesota, where nearly 17 inches of rain fell in just 21/2 days.


ST. LOUIS — Wheat farmer Art Brandli has lived all his 60 years in the far northern reaches of Minnesota, up by the Canadian border. He has never seen anything like the disaster he woke up to on Wednesday.

Entire fields were submerged under 5 feet of water. Huge sinkholes gouged just about every road around. Gravel and asphalt from the washed-out roads had been swept for miles across the countryside, until they lodged in stands of corn or barley.

While drought continued to parch the West and fires blazed out of control in Colorado, the upper Midwest was hit this week with record flooding.

Thunderstorms of window-rattling ferocity have touched down throughout the Midwest, though rain stopped in much of the area Wednesday. As rivers started to ebb, corn and soybean farmers in Missouri and Illinois took stock and reported significant damage.

But northern Minnesota took the worst pounding. In some places, nearly 17 inches of rain beat down in 2 1/2 days. The Roseau River rose 15 feet in a flash. And just as the sun was making a tentative comeback Tuesday afternoon, an aging dike along the river burst, sending water pouring into basements and pooling in the streets of tiny Roseau (population 2,600).

The sheriff called for the hospital to be evacuated. But by the time patients were loaded onto buses, the roads were all but impassable.

The buses were towed to safety by construction equipment--the only vehicles strong enough to forge through the waist-high water in the streets.

A nursing home and a home for mentally disabled children were also evacuated.

The biggest employer in town, Polaris Industries, called off its production shifts, sending workers to sandbag the plant. Polaris makes rugged all-terrain vehicles, which were put to good use as workers struggled to navigate the lake that had once been their parking lot. At one point, water in front of the plant was rising 4 inches an hour.

Because of the sandbags, the Polaris plant suffered little damage. But the flooding elsewhere in town was so extensive, no one had yet figured the cost.

"It's hard to imagine," sighed Roseau County Sheriff Jule Hanson. At least he could say the worst seemed to be over by Wednesday afternoon. The Roseau River crested in sunlight at nearly 24 feet, 8 feet above the official flood stage and almost 3 feet above the previous high-water mark, set in 1996.

There was more good news in the forecast: Meteorologists were calling for only scattered showers through the weekend.

And the town felt prepared for any river surges in the days to come. Hundreds of volunteers and National Guard soldiers had worked day and night to place 80,000 sandbags around Roseau's most vital buildings. "We're trying to save our hospital and our school," a sheriff's dispatcher said.

There was no saving cropland, however.

Throughout the Midwest, many farmers watched helplessly as the thumping rains drowned grain they had planted only a week or two earlier, in one of the few dry periods this spring.

Susie Magnusson, a farmer's wife near Roseau, could barely bring herself to describe the loss.

"Very bad," she finally said.

Art Brandli was equally grim. He said he hoped he might save some of his crop if the several feet of standing water in his fields drained off by the weekend. If it lingered any longer, though, he'd have to start again from scratch.

Meanwhile, he could barely navigate the county because so many gravel and asphalt roads were washed out--giant chunks of them just gone. "I've been here a long time. My father has been here 90 years. And we've never seen anything like this," Brandli said. "The water came up so rapidly, it was impossible to be prepared."

In his few hours at home, trying to rest, Sheriff Hanson said he flicked on the TV news Wednesday morning and watched the wildfires devouring the brittle forests of Colorado. Then he looked out the window at his waterlogged town.

And wished, for a moment, that Mother Nature could see fit to even things out.

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