Ten years ago, state Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, looked around the area he represented — Minnesota House District 28A — and didn’t see major signs of damage from the overnight storm that dumped up to 15 inches of rain on the region. A block outside his district, though, and it looked like a war zone.
“You couldn’t go anywhere and not see the impact,” Pelowski said. “Unless you had seen it, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Hardest hit in southeastern Minnesota was Rushford, a city of about 1,700 residents in northeastern Fillmore County that had a bowl-like dike system that made it difficult for the water inside the “bowl” to get out once it got in. The town was devastated, submerged for days after the storm.
The August 2007 flood remains Minnesota’s costliest disaster to this day by a large margin — the next costliest event was the 2012 flood in Duluth, which cost the state well less than half what the 2007 deluge cost.
“You’re talking about numbers that were literally off the charts for us,” Pelowski said of the 2007 flood, which prompted a presidential disaster declaration.
The state Legislature ended up approving a $157.3 million disaster relief bill to help with flood recovery in the impacted communities, but for a while there actually was some doubt that the state was even going to help.
Seventeen days after the rain let up, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty had not yet declared the flooding a disaster, which was required before the Legislature could meet in special session to provide aid. Rushford residents had put up signs urging Pawlenty to call a special session, but he’d still not done so when he came to town on Sept. 5.
Pelowski was in the crowd at the Rushford High School gym when Pawlenty addressed assembled residents, saying nothing about a special session before ending his speech and asking for questions. Pelowski had a question: “I stood up and said, ‘Governor, when are you going to call a special session?’”
Pelowski kept pressing the governor in what Pelowski described as a “sharp exchange,” and a photographer got a shot of Pawlenty and Pelowski facing off, almost like old West gunfighters — “high noon at Rushford High.”
In the next issue of Rushford’s newspaper, the Tri-County Record, editor Myron Schober railed against the governor in an editorial topped with an incendiary headline: “Rushford, Pawlenty’s Katrina,” a reference to the feeble federal response to Hurricane Katrina two years earlier.”
Within two days of the editorial getting statewide attention, Pawlenty called a special session. “It shows you the power of the press,” Pelowski said. “The amazing thing about Rushford is that it exists at all today.”
Pelowski might have pushed Pawlenty for a special session, but the veteran legislator — he’d been a state representative for about 21 years at that point — had his work cut out for him to craft a disaster relief bill from scratch.
“Special sessions are dangerous because we are working on partial knowledge, and we’re also working on high emotion. … They were literally attempts to throw money at something when we don’t really have a clear picture,” Pelowski said. “This is why special sessions aren’t so special.”
There had to be a better way, Pelowski figured, and two weeks after Pawlenty signed a $157.3 million disaster relief bill for communities hit by the flood, Pelowski began working with Kathy Novak of House Research, Paul Moe of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development and others to come up with a new process, one that would spell out what the 13 state agencies involved in disaster relief would do and give them the flexibility to act without having to create a special bill for every major disaster.
This disaster “playbook,” known as Chapter 12A, still required a special session (unless the state’s part-time Legislature already was in session), but all lawmakers had to do was approve the spending rather than creating a disaster relief package from scratch. The playbook got its first workout with the 2009 flooding in the Red River Valley.
In 2012, the state’s legislative auditor suggested another refinement to Minnesota’s disaster response, creation of a disaster relief fund so that no legislative involvement would be required to get emergency assistance flowing. Pelowski again helped spearhead the legislation, known as Chapter 12B, that created a state disaster assistance fund, starting with a $6 million pool of funding and later growing to a recommended level of $22 million.
The state Legislature still approves the spending to replenish the disaster assistance fund, but since the Disaster Relief Appropriation Bill was signed into law in 2013, special sessions are no longer required.
Ten years ago, Pelowski had established himself as a specialist in higher education and technology matters, but that storm in August 2007 set him on a new path. “I never expected to become a semi-expert on disasters,” said Pelowski, the fourth most senior member of the House. It just happened because the severe damage happened so close to his district and because he was chairman of the House Government Operations Committee at the time.
Pelowski’s efforts to refine the way disaster relief is provided in Minnesota earned him the Association of Minnesota Emergency Managers’ Elected Official of the Year award in 2014.
Across the river, Wisconsin already had a disaster relief fund in place in 2007 because of a major disaster that happened exactly two years before the 2007 flood. In the wake of the tornadoes that wreaked havoc in Viola and Stoughton, the state established the Wisconsin Disaster Relief Fund. Lori Getter, crisis communications director for Wisconsin Emergency Management, said that the fund now sits at $700,000, but she said the Legislature replenishes the fund as needed.
In the wake of the 2007 flood, the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided a total of $50.2 million in Minnesota and $17.9 million in Wisconsin.
Getter said the state paid roughly $1.5 million for disaster recovery after the 2007 flood. When FEMA provides disaster relief, it seeks a 75/25 split, with the 25 percent coming from state and local sources. In Wisconsin, Getter said, the state pays half the required local match for FEMA assistance.
In Minnesota, the state provided $68.7 million in disaster assistance from the general fund as well as bonding for an additional $76.3 million and providing $46 million in transportation fund, bringing to about $190 million in total spending on the 2007 flood recovery.
MADISON, Wis. — The Wisconsin Assembly approved a $3 billion tax break Thursday with bipartisan support for Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group to build a massive display panel factory in the state, a project President Donald Trump touted as a transformational win for the U.S. economy.
Foxconn announced three weeks ago it planned to invest $10 billion in Wisconsin on the first liquid crystal display panel factory located outside of Asia. The company, which employs about 1 million people in China, said it could eventually hire 13,000 workers at the Wisconsin facility.
As part of the deal, the Wisconsin Legislature must approve the $3 billion incentive package by the end of September.
Democratic critics, who didn’t have the votes to stop the incentive package or the project, argued Thursday that the proposal should be improved to add more protections for taxpayers, workers and the environment. They also said Republicans, who control the Legislature, were moving too quickly in voting for the bill less than three weeks after it was introduced.
“Usually if you rush things, FYI, it means the deal stinks,” said Democratic Rep. Gordon Hintz, an opponent of the project who noted that Foxconn has made promises to build factories elsewhere and never followed through.
But Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos argued that the project was an “American field of dreams” that will transform the state’s economy and should not be passed up.
“I care about the future of our state,” Vos said. “We can continue to be naysayers. We can continue to find every fault. We can say, ‘Let’s not take a chance.’”
Republican Rep. Dale Kooyenga said there are aspects of the tax break proposal he opposes, but he was looking past those concerns because he views the project as a “game changer.” He compared it to Thomas Jefferson signing the Louisiana Purchase.
Gov. Scott Walker has used a more contemporary analogy: saying Foxconn could mean as much to Wisconsin’s economy as the Green Bay Packers’ signing of All-Pro defensive end Reggie White in 1993 did to the team’s turnaround.
“When you have an opportunity to bring an entire industry to Wisconsin, that offers hope to people,” Kooyenga said.
The Assembly approved the tax break bill on a bipartisan 59-30 vote, with three Democrats who are from near where the plant may locate joining 56 Republicans in support. Twenty-eight Democrats and two Republicans voted against it. The bill now heads to the Senate, also controlled by Republicans. It must pass the Senate in the same form and be signed by Walker before taking effect.
Democrats said Walker, who is up for re-election next year, so desperately wants the project for political gain that he’s rushing it and willing to remove important environmental protections to ease construction.
“This is a huge gamble and we can’t afford this boondoggle,” said Democratic Rep. Lisa Subeck, of Madison.
Walker, who led negotiations on the deal won by Wisconsin over competition from several other nearby states, has called it a once-in-a-generation opportunity. The plant, which would build LCD panels for televisions, computers, the medical field and other uses, would be spread over a 20 million-square-foot campus. Construction would begin in 2020.
But critics question where enough trained people for the high-tech work at the plant will come from, given that Wisconsin’s unemployment level is 3.1 percent and the state has long suffered from a shortage of skilled workers.
Opponents also point to a wide array of environmental regulations that would be waived under the deal, including the requirement that an environmental impact statement be prepared.
Not all conservatives are on board with the project. The Wisconsin chapter of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, funded by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, came out against the deal as a free market advocate and opponent of government tax incentives.
It will take at least 25 years for Wisconsin taxpayers to break even under the deal, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Jackson County’s loss is the 7 Rivers Region’s gain.
Chris Hardie, the former executive editor at the Tribune and Jackson County Chamber of Commerce executive director, will take over as the new CEO of the 7 Rivers Alliance. He will replace Lisa Herr, who started at 7 Rivers in 2014 and is leaving to become executive director of Listen and Learn, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle.
“Over the past couple of years, I have worked with several 7 Rivers projects,” he said. “I was very impressed with these initiatives and it was something that drew my interest.”
7 Rivers Alliance President Michael Richards said Hardie’s skills in bringing people together as well as connections and understanding of what the area has to offer made won him the job. His first official day will be Sept. 5.
Hardie was hired as the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce executive director in 2015, and during his time there he has worked with the county and communities on economic development initiatives. He helped form an economic development committee with the county board and has organized a list of available county properties prospective business owners could buy or rent.
“I see Chris as a builder and a collaborator,” Richards said. “Those are important skills to have for any regional economic development association.”
Hardie lives in rural Jackson County, where he and his wife Sherry own and operate Brambleberry Bed and Breakfast and Brambleberry Winery, established on his great-grandparents’ homestead. The Hardies also raise sheep and Scottish Highland cattle. They have two children and two grandchildren.
Hardie began his newspaper career in 1983 with the La Crosse Tribune, working in sports. He was a news reporter for the Winona (Minn.) Daily News and editor of the former La Crosse County Countryman in West Salem before returning to the Tribune in 1990, rising through different roles and becoming executive editor in 2008.
During her leadership of the alliance, Herr added a board of directors to the organization’s leadership, doubled its operating budget and secured $200,000 in funding for the WISE workforce development plan to create a 10-year action plan for the region. In addition, Herr has helped launch the organization’s State of the Region event, the Golden Shovel Site Verification Program and the 7 Rivers Alliance Foundation, and she partnered with the La Crosse Tribune to launch the Rising Stars Under 40 awards, which is in its second year.
Richards said Hardie will be responsible for ensuring the WISE work continues, as well as implementing the action plan to come out of the plan’s regional discussions. Hardie is also on the alliance’s board, so he knows what the organization has been doing and will be able to quickly step into the role as the final WISE report is expected in the next few months.
“We have been blessed to have Lisa (Herr) in our region and take the 7 Rivers to where it is today,” Richards said. “We have the utmost confidence that Chris will take that momentum and keep the organization moving forward.”
The storm of Aug. 18 and 19, 2007, left behind more than a foot of rain and took a devastating toll on western Wisconsin and southeast Minnesota.
Seven people were dead. Torrential rains swept away roads, bridges and buildings. Creeks and rivers roared out of their banks. Hillsides liquefied, and basements filled with mud.
Communities valiantly came together to organize relief efforts and comfort survivors. And in bluff country the question remains: How do we prepare for the next torrential rain?
For five days, the La Crosse Tribune will look back at the devastation and share the lessons learned.
Emergency assistance: The deadly flood of 2007 changed the way emergency assistance is delivered.
Houston County: “Never in my wildest dreams.” That was the reaction of one top law enforcement official to the deluge that struck Aug. 18 and 19, 2007.
Crawford County: The flood of 2007, combined with a high-water encore in 2008, led to the rebuilding or relocation of a big swath of Gays Mills.
Vernon County: Elected officials and government employees have spent the past 10 years hardening the county’s infrastructure against flash-flooding events.
A terrifying phenomenon: This disaster came literally overnight, as babbling brooks and even dry ditches turned to raging rivers. The deluge from above showed emergency management officials there’s more to flooding than a slow-rising Mississippi River.
La Crosse County: While La Crosse was spared the kind of flooding seen on the Kickapoo and other small rivers, it got swamped nonetheless.
Winona County: Five people were killed in flooding that changed the landscape of large swathes of this southeastern Minnesota county, and this weekend Rushford celebrates the opening of a new high school that replaces the century-old building that took a beating in the high water.
Life-altering loss: A Brownsville, Minn., couple shares the experience of living through the natural disaster that stole their home.
Recovery: A natural treasure — Whitewater State Park — was badly scarred, but the recovery has been remarkable.