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Dayton: 'It's a catastrophe' in southwest Minnesota as homes, roads, tractors lost

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Speaking with residents of Murray County in Slayton in southwest Minnesota on Friday, July 6, were, from left, state emergency management director Joe Kelly, state ag commissioner Dave Frederickson, U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Gov. Mark Dayton. Tim Middagh/ Forum News Service2 / 3
Water floods the edges of Currie in Murray County in southwest Minnesota. The End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum at left is underwater. Submitted photo3 / 3

SLAYTON , Minn.— Throughout Murray County, flooding caused by multiple rainstorms is worse than anyone ever imagined as homes, roads and farm equipment have been damaged or lost.

In Slayton, semis, vans, U-Haul trucks and a diesel fuel pump are submerged in a newly formed pond by a convenience store and gas station. Just down the road in the U.S. 59 Auction Service lot, tractors are flipped upside down and floating.

In Currie, the End-O-Line Railroad Park and Museum is underwater. The same goes for houses and campers by Lake Shetek.

All across the county, acres upon acres of crops have been lost, and several township roads are still overrun.

Tuesday morning's rainstorm — 7 to 10 inches for parts of northern Murray County — was the breaking point for the area, capping off on an unbelievably rainy June. The county previously issued a flood emergency on June 19, after which the area received four to five times the normal levels of precipitation over a three-day period. Rainstorms in neighboring counties to the north also caused flooding, which ran south, making things even worse. As of Friday, July 6, water was still dangerously high.

Gov, Mark Dayton declared a peacetime emergency on Thursday, listing Murray County as one of 36 counties affected by flooding. On Friday morning, Dayton and U.S. Sen. Tina Smith, D-Minn., flanked by state officials, visited the area to see the devastating damage firsthand.

"We saw a lot of standing water, a lot of fields that were partially or totally underwater," Dayton said. "At Lake Shetek we saw how high that is, the roads are cut off there, people are isolated and can't get to their homes on the island. ... It's a catastrophe."

"We're here today so we can see the damage firsthand and go back and be helpful, and help to aid the recovery as quickly as we possibly can," Smith added.

Director of Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management Joe Kelly said his department will be back in no later than two weeks to put together a spreadsheet of all the damage. It would be done sooner, but the water is still too high in some areas, he said.

"We really don't know what we have yet, because this water still has to go down three feet to get to free flow," Kelly said.

In the meantime, he asked that the county make a record of everything that has been damaged.

"Try to catalog the damages and quantify those damages so we can include them in the case the governor will make to the president for the authorization of federal disaster assistance," Kelly said.

Vernon Carlson, supervisor of Lake Sarah Township, which covers Lake Sarah and part of Lake Shetek, said the level of flooding was unheard of, with countless homes being lost.

"I've spent 99 percent of my life here and I've never seen it like this before," Carlson said. "Never in my life have I seen the lakes like this."

Carlson's focus now turns to fixing the damage, which includes mangled township roads and busted culverts. His rough damage estimate starts at $120,000 — a cost that will be difficult to deal with on a small township levy.

"We've got a lot of questions to be asked yet as far as where to start, but right at the moment we're trying to get roads passable and ready for use," Carlson said.

The Murray County Sheriff's Office has received input from several townships expressing worry about running out of funds. Kelly noted townships would be reimbursed for expenses, but the state can offer short-term borrowing. As for farmers, the state can offer zero-interest loans to make repairs, said Dave Frederickson, Minnesota agriculture commissioner.

Dayton's emergency order reaches back to June 9, when heavy rains began in Minnesota. The hope is that all damage from that point is included in federal disaster assistance. Kelly expects the federal government will account for rain from at least mid-June, as it factored in to the flooding.

Tuesday's heavy rains were unexpected, but the community banded together to take on the challenge. Volunteers worked together to make sandbags, with assistance from the city of Pipestone, and neighbors helped neighbors.

The Murray County Sheriff's Office sent out boats to help evacuate nearly 70 kids from a Lake Shetek church camp. The American Red Cross opened an evacuation shelter in the 4-H building at the Murray County Fairgrounds, at which families were united.

All in all, officials are happy with the local response to the unexpected floods. They also acknowledge that the recovery effort will not be easy.

"It's not going to happen overnight ... it's going to be a tough period of time," Dayton said.