1978 flood never far out of mind

You never forget swimming for your life when waters rage,

hours on a roof before a rescue

By Heather J. Carlson

Bryan Winter can still see the tractor-trailer rigs swirling like toys in the surging waters.


Tim Macken can still remember the fear as floodwater rose around the family’s business.

Debbi Russell can still smell the stench left behind by the filthy water.

These are just some of the memories of those who survived the devastating Rochester floods of 1978. This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of the flood that killed five people and forced 5,000 residents to flee their homes. More than 6 inches of rain fell in some areas in the span of a few hours. When the floodwaters finally had receded after the July 5-6 storm, the damage topped $58 million.

It was a storm that would forever change the city. It spurred officials to push for a massive $115 million flood control project that altered the city landscape — adding a network of recreational trails and parks.

Still, for those who endured the flood, the memories linger.

When heavy rains swept through southeastern Minnesota this past August, Winter did not sit idle. The Rochester man already had loaded up the family cars and mapped out a possible route out of town. He knows just how dangerous a flood can be.

"You never forget," he said. "And then when the water gets high, ask my family. I get pretty nervous."

‘Very fortunate


to have survived’

It all stems from the night of July 5, 1978. A then 22-year-old Winter was sleeping, preparing for the late shift at the Associate Milk Producers Inc. plant. A phone call from his father at 11:30 p.m. woke him. His dad had heard people were being evacuated by boat on Fourth Avenue Southeast — a block behind his son’s apartment. Skeptical, Winter took his time showering and getting dressed. By the time he stepped outside, the water had climbed ankle-deep around his building.

"As I stepped out the front door, sploosh, there was like 2 inches of water under the door frame," he said.

Unsure what to do, Winter tossed some of his belongings on high surfaces, then left and walked to his job. By the time he arrived at 1:30 a.m., the Zumbro River had risen dramatically behind the plant.

"The Zumbro was rising an inch every 10 to 15 minutes. And it’s pretty scary to be standing out there at 1 or 2 in the morning," he said.

Winter was right to be scared. While he was standing on a truck filling sandbags, word got out that the Mayowood dam had let loose.

"There was a 3-foot wall of water coming, and the next thing I knew, the pickup was spinning around. I was into the water. The guys next to me were into the water," he said.

Swept up in the strong current, Winter swam to a picnic table attached to a tree. He climbed up the tree and sat on the roof of a nearby building (where Yaggy Colby Associates is now). He stayed on that roof for nine hours, until he and other survivors were rescued by a boat. They were taken to AMPI, where floodwaters filled the dairy plant’s first level and break room. He waited on the plant’s roof and eventually was rescued by a National Guard helicopter.


He considers himself lucky.

"To realize that I made it and then realize there were tree branches and God knows what else coming down there that could have killed me at any time," he said. "I consider myself very fortunate to have survived it."

‘It sounded like

a bomb went off’

As Russell rode with her dad and sister in the car from Lake City to Rochester the night of July 5, the then 9-year-old was amazed by the rain.

"I remember it was raining so hard it was almost like somebody with a fire hose pointed at the windshield," she said.

When they reached their home on 11th Avenue Southeast, the rain had not let up. The three — Russell; her dad, Darrell Strain; and 12-year-old sister, Wendy — bolted inside. Exhausted after a long day, Russell fell asleep on the living room floor.

"I remember the smell of the new carpet, knowing that it might flood," she said.

A few hours later, she awoke to her parents shouting and yelling. The roar of water — like a massive waterfall — filled her ears. The couple that lived next door rushed over to seek refuge, bringing their three children and two others who were spending the night. Police officers were running down the street, telling people to turn off their natural gas lines.

Darrell Strain went into the basement to turn off the gas. Russell watched from the basement steps. Then came the ominous rumbling and the house started to shake. Her dad bolted toward the stairway. He had one foot on the bottom step when the basement exploded with water rushing in.

"It sound like a bomb went off," she said. "(My dad) could have easily been killed."

Russell spent the rest of the night on second floor, as floodwaters created a river through the living room.

Meanwhile, her dad, a City Council member, worried about what to do if the house collapsed or began floating away.

He and his wife decided, if necessary, they would tie the girls’ hands around each parent’s neck in hopes they would be able to survive.

"The kids would never make it in the water if we had to try to swim to a tree," Strain said.

It was a situation the Strains would never have to face. The house stayed in place. But the water left behind a muddy, stinky mess, destroying much of the home and the family’s belongings.

Strain would spend the rest of his career in public service working to make sure Rochester’s flood control project was built.

‘All of a sudden, the water started to rise’

As the creeks and rivers in and around Rochester began swelling the night of July 5, Tim Macken headed to his family’s business, Macken Funeral Home, near Bear Creek in southeast Rochester. There he, his dad and his brother watched and waited.

"All of a sudden, the water started to rise around the building," he said.

The then 24-year-old saw water rip apart the hockey boards from Mayo High School’s rink, sending them toward the funeral home. The funeral home’s garage door began to bow under the pressure, so the trio pushed a hearse against the it to help secure it. Then they began nailing the door closed.

As the waters surged above the funeral home windows, the Mackens sought shelter on the roof and were rescued by boat. The business suffered $20,000 to $30,000 in damage, but Macken said he felt lucky compared to those whose homes were damaged or destroyed.

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