River of water, mud, trees tore through home

2012-08-29T17:00:00Z River of water, mud, trees tore through homeBy Amy Pearson / Lee Newspapers La Crosse Tribune
August 29, 2012 5:00 pm  • 

As sheets of rain pounded the city for hours, the Zibrowskis spent the evening as they had hundreds before.

Phyllis turned the TV to “Big Joe’s Polka Show” at about 9:30 p.m., and Harold climbed the stairs leading to the couple’s bedroom in the more than century-old, three-story farmhouse.

He lay down and for a few minutes listened to the storm grow more violent.

A tornado, he thought.

Harold started back down the stairs, but he didn’t get far before a river of water, mud and trees tore through the house, splitting it and sweeping away floors, 10-inch-thick concrete walls and everything else in its path.

Aug. 18, 2007, had turned into a night the Zibrowskis can’t forget, one that still haunts 88-year-old Harold’s dreams.

‘Back to that terrible night’

Heavy rainfall flooded much of southeast Minnesota that night, and Hokah was no exception.

Clouds released 15 inches of rain on the small city within a few hours, damaging roads and bridges and sending hillsides crashing down like lava.

“Are we going back to that terrible night?” Harold asked earlier this week, sitting at the kitchen table in his home.

The wooden piece of furniture, along with a rocking chair Phyllis was sitting in that night and a glass cat figurine now on display on the couple’s kitchen counter, are the only possessions the mudslide that began just feet behind the Zibrowski’s home didn’t claim.

“Not a day goes by when I don’t think about it,” Phyllis said. “I am so thankful that we were able to survive it.”


The now-83-year-old heard a crack shortly after Harold went upstairs and felt something slam against the back of the couple’s home on County Road 7 just outside of Hokah.

“I looked and I thought, ‘What’s that odd thing?’” Phyllis said. “Here a tree was coming right down through the middle of the house.”

“Roots first,” Harold added.

The deluge trapped Phyllis in her rocking chair in a corner. Unstable ground around her slanted toward where the rest of the house used to be, threatening to sweep her away every time she moved.

Harold found himself stuck in a water hole, out of sight from his wife, his leg pinned between a boulder and a wall in more than three feet of mud and muck.

The two communicated for a while by yelling to each other.

At one point, Phyllis tried to throw the hose from the oxygen tank, which she uses due to a blood clot years ago, to Harold, thinking she might be able to pull her husband free.

She couldn’t reach him.

She couldn’t even see him.

You’ve got to get going, Harold told himself. You’ve got to get out of here.

Fatigue and hypothermia eventually overtook him, and he lost consciousness.

There was nothing Phyllis could do from inside the mangled home.

For six hours she waited until one of their sons, Jim, and his wife, Jeanne, who live in the area, arrived and called for help.

By that time the mudslide had covered the road and a snowplow had to be used to clear a path through the sludge for an ambulance.

Harold’s body temperature measured 78 degrees when emergency personnel reached him.

At least one first responder said Harold would never make it.

Harold thought otherwise.

He woke up in the hospital surrounded by family and grateful to be alive. Doctors released him 10 days later, and he and Phyllis rented a home in Hokah while friends and family tore down and cleaned up the property.

At one point in the hospital, Harold joked that the first grandkid to find his dentures in the mud would win $100.

Nobody did.

New home, new anxieties

Much has changed for the Zibrowskis in the past five years.

Some of it the result of the unpredictable, violent force of nature. Some of it due to the inevitable, irreversible force of time.

Harold and Phyllis have a new home in the same spot as the one they had to demolish in the days after the mudslide.

The couple never debated building in a different location, somewhere other than on the land where their nine kids and many of their 31 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren have grown up and spent holidays.

They since have sold the cows they used to tend, and Harold has quit working.

The Zibrowskis’ 29-year-old granddaughter, Jessica Levine, moved in about two years ago to help care for the pair.

Harold has stopped driving and Phyllis hasn’t for years, so Jessica takes care of the grocery shopping, helps clean the house and drives them to doctors’ appointments before and after work.

“They are some tough, tough people,” Jessica said. “How my grandpa ever made it through that is a complete miracle.”

Harold has had five heart bypass surgeries since 2007.

He didn’t have health problems prior to the flood.

Jessica is more than happy to help out her grandparents and make the past few years’ transitions easier.

There are times, though, when she can do little to comfort the couple. Even a slight rain conjures feelings of anxiety and fear.

“I still dream about it,” Harold said.

Many nights now when Phyllis hears rain on the roof, she peeks over the edge of the large bedroom window facing the hillside that once sliced her home in half to see if any water is streaming down the incline, again grown over with weeds and long grasses.

She doesn’t wake Harold. He would only worry, too.

Instead, Phyllis usually walks to the living room, sits in the rocking chair she weathered that first terrible night in, and waits for the rain to stop.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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