RUSHFORD, Minn. —The city aged about 50 years in a few days in August 2007.
The flash flood left parts of Rushford underwater for days and damaged much of its public infrastructure.
The city has spent nearly $40 million since on recovery projects. The result: Most things in Rushford are new.
“They say sometimes it takes a flood to clean up a town,” said Jeff Copley, the city’s public works director.
Long road to recovery
The city has slowly made its way through a long list of repair and rehabilitation projects.
Many costs were covered by FEMA or state grants or donations, but the city paid its share, too.
The city spent $4.2 million, split between a loan and bonds, on a 2009 street, water, sanitary and sewer repair project.
The city has paid $593,000 for a new community center, $1.2 million for a new water treatment facility, and has increased utility rates to cover costs to build the treatment plant and fix and seal wells, among other things.
“All of this was done in a very compressed time,” city administrator Steve Sarvi said.
“You normally wouldn’t do anywhere near this kind of work all at once — the flood forces you to.”
Among the most expensive projects has been repairing and bringing up to code what’s become the city’s most important property — the levee system.
It cost $480,000 — funded by a state grant — for the city to evaluate the levee after the flood. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spent $1.1 million on repairs.
The city has paid its share. A levee improvement project expected to cost $2.3 million will include $630,000 from city coffers, with the rest covered by the state.
The unending task list has kept Copley and his crew busy, but there’s a light, however faint, at the end of the tunnel.
He hopes that by December 2014, the city will be caught up — to where it originally needed to be by Aug. 17, 2007.
Still waiting for FEMA money
Some costs of the flood are known and have been paid. Others — particularly those attached to possible FEMA funding — had to be paid out of pocket, with the city hoping for a future reimbursement.
“The city took a bit of a leap of faith,” Sarvi said. “(FEMA) would never fully commit and say ‘Yes we will,’ but we had to do the work anyway.”
City Clerk Kathy Zacher estimated in July that the city still has yet to collect about $1.4 million in FEMA funding.
“It’s frustrating,” she said. “It takes forever sometimes.”
The lack of reimbursements has slowed the city’s cash flow, resulting in a downgraded credit rating in December 2011. The lower rating means higher interest rates when the city wants to bond or take out loans.
Sarvi said Rushford’s debt level has risen since the flood, but the city should have three-quarters of all debt paid off by 2027.
“We know it’s higher, but we know why,” he said.
“Those were projects that needed to be done.”
Other rebuilding projects take a backseat
Funding essential projects meant others had to be discarded.
Building a new city library, which appeared to be a lock in early 2007, is now in limbo.
“It was a couple weeks away from getting approved,” said Susan Hart, the city’s library director.
“If the flood didn’t happen, (the city) would have built the library,” Sarvi said.
The project fell to the bottom of the city’s priority list after the flood. The Rushford Library Board secured a $2.2 million loan and additional grant money for a new building in 2010, but the Rushford City Council agreed to back the plan only once funds to cover the loan had been raised.
In February 2012, the council axed the plan for good, saying the city simply couldn’t afford it. The council later voted to move city hall and expand and refurbish the library — a plan that has also since stalled.
It’s not just the city government feeling the effects.
Rushford-Peterson School District Superintendent Chuck Ehler’s push for a new school building has been propelled and shaped by damages from the flood.
Ehler said some longstanding issues in the building — particularly air-quality problems — were exacerbated by flood damage.
The district has since been working to secure funding for a new building, but Ehler said the debt taxpayers took on because of the flood has made it difficult for the district to ask them to take on even more. The district has opted to not pursue a referendum in recent years.
“A number of families had to take out second mortgages just to repair or replace their homes,” he said. “For the community to take (a new school) on as a cost is just unrealistic.”
Ehler tried a novel solution earlier this year, asking the state Legislature to approve building a new school as part of a bonding bill. It failed, and now the district is looking long-term, hoping to complete a series of improvement projects during the next 15 to 20 years.
Ehler said he’s optimistic the plan will get done, even if it means overstaying his welcome in the school’s current building — 106 years old and counting.
“It’s the best we have to offer at this point, and we’re making the most of it,” he said.
Projects at a glance
Flood-related Rushford projects since 2007
—$17.5 million for business recovery, job growth and retention
—$5.4 million spent on 2009 and 2011 street, water and sewer improvement projects
—$4.1 million in immediate housing assistance
—$2.3 million to design and upgrade the city’s levee system
—$1.5 million to repair and rehabilitate existing wastewater treatment plant
—$1.27 million to fix city wells
—$1.2 million to construct a new water treatment plant
—$1.15 million to replace city equipment lost in the flood
—$1.1 million to repair flood damages to the city’s levee system
—$897,000 to rebuild the city’s municipal liquor store
—$593,000 to replace damaged community center
—$500,000 for an airport improvement project
—$480,000 for a levee recertification study
—$400,000 for housing repair
—$300,000 to rehabilitate electric utilities downtown
—$300,000 to extend a bike trail
—$200,000 to repair Creekside and North End parks
—$150,000 to seal non-compliant private wells
—$144,000 to assist residents with improvement costs after the flood
—$39,000 to replace wastewater treatment plant pumps
Note: Projects were paid for from a variety of sources, including state and federal aid and grants and city bonds