Flood brings out Fond du Lac's community spirit

When Jim Rodman woke up at 3 a.m. on June 20 and looked outside his Fond du Lac home, he could immediately sense something wasn't right. "This is bad," he recalled telling his wife, Mardi, as the storm raged. "This is bad. We have to get up and p...

Mission Creek
Mission Creek used to flow through this crevasse near the Fond du Lac Community Church, as seen on July 6. A flood several weeks ago in the neighborhood displaced the stream, which now runs through several residents' yards. (Photo by Tom Olsen)

When Jim Rodman woke up at 3 a.m. on June 20 and looked outside his Fond du Lac home, he could immediately sense something wasn't right.

"This is bad," he recalled telling his wife, Mardi, as the storm raged. "This is bad. We have to get up and pay attention. This is going to be bad."

Residents of the small, isolated neighborhood at the western edge of the city are used to periodic flooding from the St. Louis River and Mission Creek. But this time it was different. This time, the water rose to new heights and forced dozens of people to evacuate their homes.

Jim, a Duluth police officer, spent the next couple of days helping people out of their homes. Mardi, a secretary at the Fond du Lac Community Church, helped set up a makeshift crisis center at the church and tackle residents' concerns.

The Rodmans, who have lived in Fond du Lac since 1988, say it was a community effort that got the neighborhood through the worst flood in its history.


"It was neighbors just taking care of neighbors," Jim said. "If someone had a couple gallons of milk and someone needed a gallon, you gave it to them. If someone had trees impeding them getting in and out of the house, you did what you could to get stuff taken care of so people could at least start moving around."

The biggest concern initially was the upper part of the neighborhood, above Highway 23, where 131st Avenue West, the main thoroughfare into the neighborhood, turned into a raging river, flooding houses and dislocating sheds and other structures.

Paul and Sue Bachinski had to evacuate their home for two days after Mission Creek spilled into their back yard. Their house was flooded, their guest cabin floated two blocks away and they lost a garden shed, car and several trailers.

"Neighbors who stayed watched homes and kept pumps going in homes," Paul said. "Neighbors stayed banded together, took care of each other's properties, helped with stuff going on."

After about two days, the attention turned to Water Street, a mile-long road along a peninsula, below the highway. The St. Louis River continued to rise, flooding all of the road's homes and forcing authorities to ask residents to evacuate.

"You were evacuating and trying to get to people's homes who you felt were in peril," Mardi said. "These are people you know and care about."

The flooding made Highway 23 and Highway 210 impassible, essentially cutting the neighborhood off from the outside world for several days. Spotty cell phone service made it difficult to even place phone calls to loved ones and emergency workers.

When residents returned to their homes, many were left overwhelmed.


"When those people started getting into Water Street and seeing their homes, you'd see some of those residents come here (to the church) and say they didn't know where else to go," Mardi said. "We'd start to try to plug them in with some food and some information and resources. But your heart just went out to them."

The church is the only community building in the neighborhood, so it was a natural fit to become the hub of activity. Normal church business was put on hold while people gathered in the modest chapel. Mass services the next two Sundays were relocated to Bridgeman's in Gary-New Duluth. Public meetings are being held in the church and various governmental and charitable organizations are using it to communicate with residents.

Residents say they have received an outpouring of support from outside groups as well. They credited the city of Duluth, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and Department of Natural Resources, Minnesota Power and the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District with responding to the disaster quickly. The agencies helped remove debris, restore power outages and maintain water levels.

The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army sent workers to the neighborhood to provide food and other supplies. The Lions Club has served many meals at the church. National faith-based groups, including Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and Nechama Jewish Response to Disaster, have sent workers to help with the cleanup.

"We've had exceptional volunteers," Mardi said. "It's too good to be true. They've come in and said, 'What can we do?' They've been lifesavers."

Gordy Mesedahl, director of development for Salvation Army Duluth, said the Salvation Army alone served more than 1,400 meals, with hundreds more coming from the other charities.

"If you need help and go without help, it's only because you didn't ask," he said. "There's a lot of help from within the community; people sitting around hearing people talking to each other and saying, 'We should go over to so-and-so's place, they got hit hard.'"

Mesedahl said it was it was uplifting to see neighbors working together, mentioning a woman who went through the neighborhood several times distributing lattes topped with spices and an American flag.


"It just made the mood a little more festive," he said. "Handing out lattes and just being hospitable, it was just such a nice gesture."

Residents aren't quite ready to predict what the future will hold for Fond du Lac. Mission Creek has been dislocated from its previous brim. Hundreds of trees and other debris line both sides of Water Street, where most homes are still not occupied. Most of the neighborhood remains coated with a layer of mud, and residents don't expect cleanup to end any time soon.

"It might be a new normal," Mardi said. "We're not sure what the future holds because that's going to be looked at in a coordinated way, I think, and we'll make plans for the future based on what we've seen can happen."

Minnesota Department of Transportation erected a temporary brim to remove the stream from yards such as the Bachinskis', but the stream left behind a thick layer of sand and silt.

It's going to take a year before it's even close to being back to normal," Paul Bachinski said. It's just going to take continuous effort of cleaning to make it nice again."

Residents say the flood has done at least one good thing for Fond du Lac: It's brought them closer together.

We've made new friends," Mardi said. We've been here for a while and younger families have moved in and now we know them and the kindnesses that people have done."

Bachinski, who has lived in Fond du Lac since 1996, agreed.


Throughout the process, it's been residents helping residents rebuild and do what needs to be done," he said. "We got to meet everyone (in the neighborhood), which was neat."

Jim said the response of residents and outside agencies and organizations will leave a lasting impression on him.

"Everybody working together to just make this place livable again in the shortest period of time they could, it's just incredible," he said. "It was really a coordinated response by everybody."

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