St. Clair community overwhelmed with volunteers

“We had the flood in 2010. We had a huge outpouring of community support for that. In 2011, we built a berm, it cost about $200,000 to protect that waste water treatment plant from flooding. In 2014, we had another flood, it wasn’t as severe. This year with this big flood, we weren’t able to save that sewer plant and we lost one lift station too,” said Catherine Seys, St. Clair City Clerk and Treasurer, regarding this past week’s immense rainstorm that left the town inundated.

As Seys informed me, this is the third 100-year storm event to affect the town of St. Clair in the past six years.

According to Minnesota DNR, “A 100-year storm drops rainfall totals that have a one percent probability of occurring at that location that year. Encountering a 100-year storm on one day does nothing to change the probability of receiving the same amount of precipitation the very next day.”

With a population of 868 at the time of the 2010 census, St. Clair is home to one k-12 public school, one post office, one full-time city employee (Seys), two full-time Public Works Department employees and a 26-person volunteer fire department and contracts with the Blue Earth County Sheriff’s Office for police presence.

“Keeping basements from flooding,” said Deborah McCollum, one of the full time Public Works employees, when I asked her of the top priority at 11 a.m., Friday.

One lift station and post office, both located just tens of feet away from one another at the intersection of Fitzloff Avenue and Park Street North, were overrun by the rising river. City management and volunteers had to abandon their efforts to save both. As a result, most of the homes on the east of town had water in their basements.

As defined by McCollum and Seys, a sewage lift station pumps greywater and blackwater (shower, sink, washing machine, toilet water) from a lower elevation to a higher elevation until it arrives to the sewer plant.

“We’re trying to maintain this lift station down here at the wastewater treatment plant to hopefully keep the houses on the west end from flooding in their basement. And right now we’re holding our own,” said McCollum.

McCollum said the rescue efforts began around 10 p.m.

“Our lift station started getting high alarms. So we went down there and our pumps couldn’t keep up because the water was coming in so fast. And County Road 28, the main street here, was flooded. So we had trouble. Everybody’s yards looked like lakes,” McCollum said.

McCollum said pumps and volunteers were requested. Sandbagging would be monumental if the community was to endure the storm.

“We had people coming in here with pumps so we could try and save the lift stations, but like I said, the one failed. But not for lack of trying. We did our best, but the river beat us this time. And this storm was worse than the flood in 2010 actually,” said McCollum.

At around 11:30 a.m., I met Jack May, who lives three miles out of St. Clair. As I arrived, a crowd of some 150 volunteers were formed up like army ants. The humanitarians tossed 40 pound sandbags hand-to-hand like a cursory game of hot potato. From pallets situated on River Street, to a distance of 60 yards to the northwest entrance of the town’s school, the group unloaded an immeasurable number of sandbags from front loaders and flat-bed trailers.

“I didn’t want to get in the way of what I knew would be a lot of volunteers, until I saw an email this morning asking staff to come inside the school and pick stuff up off the floor. That was pretty remarkable,” said May when asked why he was volunteering that day.

Jack May explained that the school uses an alert system that sends voicemails to the community landlines and emails informing the residents of events, such as the rainstorm and volunteer requests.

At 1 p.m., volunteer coordinators asked half of the military company sized group to mobilize to the next site: residences that required a sandbag wall. This residence was conveniently located next to the Fire Department/City Hall property.

Upon arrival, I immediately hopped onto the flatbed pickup and began unloading sandbags, making sure to maintain a steady pace with the individuals below. I recommended forming two lines, facing each other. I instructed the group to stand in a zig-zag pattern, not facing a person, but an empty void across from them. This zig-zag pattern provided more support to the individual, when moving the sandbag down the assembly line model.

While 75 of us cleared the pallets, a group of 10 volunteers began filling empty sacks with sand. During the span of an hour, I spoke and exchanged jokes with almost everyone I encountered. I met a couple who drove from White Bear Lake to help and two MNSU Mankato students that received an email from their college department, requesting bodies to help fill and place sandbags.

Dody Loge, a resident of St. Clair, spoke to me in depth while taking a short break.

“A lot of sand bagging. A lot of filling bags, a lot of tossing bags down, helping people get stuff out of their basements,” said Loge, when asked how she’s been helping.

Dody’s own home was affected by the storm. She mentioned there was at least one inch of water in the basement. Yet here she was, with her nine-year-old daughter, helping the rest of the community to prevent further damage.

Dody wasn’t the only one either, to have incurred flood damage and volunteer her time to the community.

With Loge’s permission, I asked her daughter, Isabelle, a few questions.

“Because I want to,” said the running back footballer when I asked her why she was helping.

The nine-year-old attends the elementary school in town. I had first met her and her mother there just an hour earlier. At the school site, I told Isabelle that once the water receded, we would have to return and remove the sandbags. I also told her that if she returned to help, that I would too. She gave me an ultimatum. That if she could keep the sandbags and make a sandbox, she would return and help remove them.

One of her favorite hobbies, as she explained, was to throw marbles into sandboxes, and retrieve them. A nearby volunteer then submerged her fantasy, by adding that once used, the sandbags are considered contaminated, and must be disposed of properly.
I asked Isabelle if she had any friends that were helping, “The girl over there in the blue shirt, her name is Elizabeth,” she said.

There were many children helping. They hugged the sandbags tightly as if they were teddy bears, as they passed them along to the next person in line. The kids walked around offering bottled water and snacks. Elderly adults were exchanging sandwiches with smiles and handing empty sandbags to be filled to the high school students shoveling sand.

Jacob Tschann and Tyler Keller, whom I met at the previous site, eventually made their way to my work station.

“My sister told me that there was a lot of flooding in St Clair. I kind of wanted to help, and then I received an email from the CSET Department asking for volunteers. That was all the confirmation I needed to get out here and help,” said Jacob.
Jacob and Tyler are both juniors studying Math Education at MNSU, Mankato.

“Same as Jake, heard through the email. Jake kinda told me about it and thought it’d be a great opportunity to come out and help, make a difference. Medford flooded a couple years back and I know they could use everyone, so anyway I can make a difference.” Tyler is from Medford, which, as he mentioned, flooded a few years back.

Federico Avila and Hallie Duethman also received an email notification from the College of Science, Engineering, and Technology (CSET) at MNSU, Mankato. “I’m here to try and help the community,” said Hallie.

The five of us had a systematic approach for filling sandbags. Along with a handful of other volunteers, we shoveled through two or three truckloads of sand.

At 6:30 p.m., I spoke with Eric Weller, Blue Earth County Emergency Management.

“We could have crested already. We’ve seen, since six or seven this morning, the river went up four inches. Then came down five during the day. So we’re actually plus or minus one depending on how you count it,” said Weller, regarding the river’s water height.

I asked him how many sandbags, or truckloads of sand we had used up to that point. He couldn’t provide a definitive answer. He explained that the sand had various haulers, but mostly came from one location, the Old Castle Pits, which is also known as Southern Minnesota Construction.

“It’s really nice to see everybody work together. Makes you feel like a part of the community. I’m glad I came out to help,” said Tyler, the Math Education major, from MNSU, Mankato.

“I’m just awfully thankful for everybody. The volunteers, it’s a small community and it’s so heartwarming that everybody steps up in a situation like this and I can’t say thank you enough,” said Deborah McCollum, a Public Works employee.

The City Clerk has been providing updates on the city Facebook page. Sunday evening’s update states that a disaster relief organization, Team Rubicon, will be providing clean-up services, free of charge, for basements of homeowners who were affected by the flood.

“We’ll be in Waseca for three days and St. Clair for two days,” said Curtis Peters, District Coordinator with Team Rubicon for Southern Minnesota.

According to their mission statement, Team Rubicon is a 501(c)3 non-profit, and member of the Minnesota and National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster. Their mission is to unite the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to rapidly deploy emergency response teams.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief Ministry has also provided the community with a shower unit that contains four showers and a laundry facility.

The city water is safe for use, although city management asks residents to prevent any fluids from entering the drains.

Reading other local media publications, the city is hoping to begin city wide recovery and clean-up efforts within the next week.

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