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Bush declares flood-stricken counties a disaster area

BY JOSHUA FREED ASSOCIATED PRESS WINONA, Minn. -- President Bush on Thursday signed a disaster declaration for three southeastern Minnesota counties where flooding killed seven people and destroyed hundreds of homes. The disaster declaration for ...

BY JOSHUA FREED

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WINONA, Minn. -- President Bush on Thursday signed a disaster declaration for three southeastern Minnesota counties where flooding killed seven people and destroyed hundreds of homes.

The disaster declaration for Fillmore, Houston and Winona counties came sooner than expected and followed a request by Gov. Tim Pawlenty that the Federal Emergency Management Agency expedite the process. FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said the president made the decision quickly.

"It was obvious you had significant damage," he said.

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Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced the disaster declaration at Winona State University after flying over the flooded area in a helicopter with Pawlenty and Paulison.

Chertoff and Paulison had just come from Ohio, which also faced serious flooding this week. Federal officials are set to begin assessing damage in Ohio on Saturday.

The disaster declaration in Minnesota means people can begin registering for federal help. FEMA spokeswoman Melynda Petrie told residents in Stockton earlier in the day that after the declaration, FEMA workers would go door-to-door through the flood-damaged area to show people how to sign up for help.

Individuals can apply for help in temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses, or other programs. State and local governments and certain private nonprofit organizations can apply for aid on a cost-sharing basis.

Pawlenty's office said FEMA officials would submit damage estimates today for three other counties that had flood damage -- Wabasha, Olmsted and Steele.

Earlier in the day, about 50 people filled the city hall in Stockton to ask Petrie, the FEMA spokeswoman, about the help that might be coming.

A preliminary American Red Cross survey identified about 4,200 homes in the area affected by the flood, including 256 complete losses and 338 with major damage. Bridges and roads were also damaged.

One place that was hard-hit was Stockton. On Thursday it seemed like every one of its 751 people owned a pair of rubber boots. They've become a necessity even downtown, where deep muddy ruts are carved along the sides of the streets and the ground is still so soft in spots that it threatens to pull sneakers off.

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Floodwater ruined the house Jerry Schuh has had for 25 years. It filled his basement and rose an inch deep on the main floor. The water in the basement churned like a river, pushing his belongings around until they were a muddy, ruined mess.

The house where he and his family lives was paid for, except for a $30,000 mortgage taken out a few years ago to add a family room. Now he's ready to sell it for whatever he can get, and walk away.

"I'm kind of burned out," the mud-splattered 53-year-old vending machine repairman said on Thursday, clomping through a soggy grass field wearing rubber boots.

Schuh was one of about 50 residents who filled City Hall on Thursday before President Bush signed the disaster declaration to ask about the process for getting federal help.

Afterward, Mayor Jack Roberts said he and his wife took out a federally backed $10,000 loan at 4 percent after flooding damaged their home in 1991. That money helped them repair it. They've moved to a different part of Stockton and their home was undamaged this time.

The town was a mess on Thursday. Residents piled their muddy, ruined belongings along the sides of the streets. Tractors mingled with cars on U.S. 14. The city hall has turned into a hub of activity, with bottled water stacked high, a Red Cross truck serving hot dogs. City Clerk Bethany Winchester said she usually takes 10 calls a day on the city's lone phone line, which is also its fax line.

Now, "As soon as somebody hangs up it's ringing again," she said.

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