Floodwaters recede, struggles remain
With a Pine County flood recovery meeting set for 7 p.m. tonight at the Rutledge Community Center, several flood victims recently shared their recovery stories. Many of the victims are sitting in a holding pattern for relief or have given up hope it will really happen.
Rutledge residents Greg and Dee Koivisto are currently existing by renting east of Barnum. These are his words. They not only lost everything inside their home as it was swept away by the Kettle River, they lost the right to rebuild their home.
The Koivistos had flood insurance. Their land has now been changed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from a floodplain to a floodway. This does not allow any permanent structures to be on their 9.9 acres. The insurance company could only give them half of their mortgage coverage as they could no longer rebuild on the original site. That settlement was sent directly to the bank mortgage.
They will also have to remove from the floodway what is left of the existing home structures. Funds are available through FEMA for that, but it is only a payment of 50 percent up front and the remaining 50 percent once they have proven through photos that all buildings have been removed.
As they continue to pay a mortgage on their unlivable home, they are hoping to qualify for a buyout. They must stay current on their mortgage as it is a requirement to be eligible for the majority of the funding available. The county has been very apologetic to Koivisto, when he met with them recently, about the length of time that has passed for the buyout.
One person Koivisto feels “really cares” is Denise Baran from the Pine County management team for flood victims. Koivisto stated, “She has continued to support victims and has fought hard to get things going faster for us.”
Gertzens of Sturgeon Lake
Sturgeon Lake residents Jan and Denny Gertzen are also victims, albeit in a different way. They also had flood insurance but ran into many problems when the insurance adjuster did not follow through on their claim correctly. There were errors on dimensions of areas needing repair. As it was a flood claim, the insurance company had to bring in independent adjusters from out of the area trained for floods.
The Gertzens did not receive their first estimate until the end of August, even though the adjuster came within two weeks of the flood. Their insurance company has been very supportive through the long fight with the adjuster. They also felt they had a lot of support from Lonny Thomas from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Regional Waters Division out of Brainerd.
A group of neighbors in the Cathedral Pines area of Sturgeon Lake had already started a communication hub via the Internet due to ongoing high water issues. When the flash flood happened in June 2012 this hub grew as the Gertzens, along with Ken Grey and others, were trying to pass along any information the city, county and state gave them. Communication to the flood victims about available programs was not always getting to them when needed. The first their area was notified they were in a flood plain was in April 2012, slightly before the flood.
Looting began two weeks after the flood. Many homes, including the Gertzens’, were broken into. This added insult to injury, they said. After the flood, at least three of the homes have been abandoned in their area. The Pine County Sheriff’s Office increased patrols by car and four-wheelers after the first looting occurred.
The Gertzens say the neighborhood has become a lot closer after the tragedy. They continue to support each other through the wait. In reference to the buyout, Jan Gertzen asks, “If they have the money to buy you out, causing the loss of taxes, by adding green land space only, why wouldn’t they give you the same amount of money to fix your home?”
Jan says she feels fortunate they had insurance, and she has been focusing on helping the victims who are struggling around them.
Ockwigs of Sturgeon Lake
Bob and Dody Ockwig of Farm to Market Road in Sturgeon Lake are also recovering from last June’s flood. They are located a half mile from the river and 2-3 miles from the Cathedral Pines area. They were surviving from paycheck to paycheck and feeling like they were doing all right until the nightmare of the flood occurred.
They have been trying to work with their mortgage company, a large corporate bank, since the flood. After qualifying for a loan through the Small Business Administration (SBA) they thought they could move on.
According to Dody Ockwig, their mortgage lender would not accept the payment from SBA because it was not 100 percent. The SBA could not release any funds without the cooperation of the mortgage lender. The mortgage lender sent them to two other departments in their system but nothing changed. For the Ockwigs there was no relief from the rising costs to survive and the continuing mortgage payment.
The Ockwigs lived with family the first month after the flood and then a cousin lent them a 30-foot camper trailer that was parked on their property so they could work on their home until September. They had to use an outhouse, shower elsewhere and survive without many of the conveniences that were now gone. They hauled ice to keep their food cold.
They also had looting problems to complicate trying to clean up their home. Theirs was among five other homes that suffered damage and looting in their neighborhood. They still felt very isolated from the follow-up of help. There was a constant stream of curious folk driving by and checking out damage shortly after the flood. That did not help.
The good things that happened were all the meals that were provided by the Salvation Army as people were struggling to start cleanup during the first two weeks. Sturgeon Lake city employee Scott Helfman was extremely helpful, always stopping in to check on the Ockwigs and helping out as much as possible from the beginning with all of the Sturgeon Lake flood victims.
Before they could begin cleanup, it took the Ockwigs two months of sump pumps, fans and dehumidifiers to dry out the basement as the water table receded slowly.
Dody Ockwig said they had to finally decide to funnel their money into a furnace, rewiring and putting the necessities back into the home to make it livable by winter. Bob said Veterans Affairs helped with their furnace. “We wouldn’t be in here right now if it wasn’t for them,” Ockwig, a veteran, said, although they still feel like they are “basically camping out in their home.”
They have been unable to pay their mortgage since September and after continuing to try to work with their mortgage lender to allow them to either catch up with a repayment plan or modify their loan, they were told “no.” They are currently waiting in fear of the foreclosure notice to happen and will lose their home at that point because their mortgage lender will not accept payments once the foreclosure goes into effect, according to Dody.
She said it was a rough Christmas when your gifts to each other were things you lost. Ockwig gets to look out at a six-foot sinkhole in their yard where her flower garden had been, wondering where they can go when foreclosed on with their family animals in tow. Ockwig doesn’t know if she will learn anything new that may help them at the flood recovery meeting on January 17. It just may be too late. Ockwig said, “Apologies of slow movement of help don’t feed you.”
These are just three stories from many of the Pine and Carlton County flood victims.