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Perseverance is all that’s left

By Christina Killion Valdez

ckillion@postbulletin.com

STOCKTON — As Stockton comes into view on the descent from Hilltop Farm, the town looks tired. The streets are still, and for the third day in a row the sky is an overcast gray.

"Is it raining again?" Audrey Ellinghuysen asks as drops pepper the windshield. "It makes me sick."

The trip to the farm, however, has buoyed her daughter Bonnie Oldham’s spirits. For the past two months she and her husband, Roger, fought against time, money, fear, bureaucracy and Mother Nature with little to show for it. The constant struggle has taken more out of her than the wild rooftop ride the night of the floods and left her wondering if it was all worth it.

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While she can’t return to the farm for good, since it’s now her brother’s home, the quick trip to the place where she was raised reminded her that it will take more than a flood to bring her down. Slight, but strong, Bonnie perseveres.

She’s done it before. Back in 1998, against her father’s wishes, she cut wood on a Sunday. Alone in the woods near the farm, Bonnie got caught in the kickback of the chainsaw. It sliced into her right bicep, across her abdomen and into her jugular. She walked away with 390 stitches and her life.

On Aug. 19, at age 52, she again miraculously walked away with her life and also with Roger and her mother. The three survived a 200-yard journey as their home was ripped from its foundation and swept away in the flood waters. The image of their home’s final resting spot on the train tracks was seen worldwide in reports of the flood.

"I feel like we came down off of that house for a reason," Bonnie says. "There might be a chance we can’t rebuild; that doesn’t mean someone else can’t."

In the meantime, like so many families across the region, the couple is living out of a14-foot by 64-foot trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. This night, as sprinkles of rain continue on and off, the television is tuned to The Weather Channel. A torrent that looks like a river rushing through the streets of Valencia, Spain, flashes on the screen.

"Looks like they got a little current," Roger says.

Bonnie looks from the back bedroom where she’s hanging clothes to dry and says, "I wouldn’t wish that on anyone."

Before walking across the street for an informational meeting being put on by the mayor, Bonnie slips on a sweatshirt she picked out from among the donations. The front reads, "Respect all." On the back it says, "Fear none."

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A smell of mildew still permeates Rushford City Hall, which, like most of the city, filled with flood water and mud in August. About 30 residents, all still struggling with the flooding in one way or another, have gathered in hopes of finding out what comes next.

"We’re running out of new information to tell you folks," Mmayor Jack Roberts says at the start of the meeting. "We’re dealing with the government, and the government wheels turn pretty slow."

Still, some residents want to know about possible buyouts. Already 15 home-and-property and five home-only buyout applications have been filed, totaling about $2 million, says City Clerk Beth Winchester, who sits with the mayor at the front table.

The news is a surprise to Bonnie, who hoped more of her neighbors would rebuild. "Isn’t a big majority of your town going to be gone?" she asks the mayor.

Yet memories of the flood that cut through the town in 1991 are still fresh, and this time it was much worse. By the end of the meeting, Lee Henry Sr., an old contractor who served as mayor during the 1991 flood, questions the safety of the Oldhams rebuilding on the same site.

"How much pain and suffering does someone need?" he asks. "It’s got to stop somewhere. If the city doesn’t stop it, there’s going to be problems down the line."

The question burns. The Oldhams want to rebuild their home and their lives. A week before, they got the OK to rebuild on that site. The only thing they don’t have is the money.

They qualify for a forgivable $23,000 from the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency, but it’s not enough, Bonnie says. While they can defer their current mortgage for a year, she says, they don’t qualify for a second mortgage to build a new home.

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At age 66, Roger lives off Social Security and the money he brings in from the shop. Bonnie is out of work on disability. About a year ago she was diagnosed with lupus, Sjogrens, which affects the use of her hands and causes anxiety. She’s most concerned about Roger’s health, though. He has severe heart failure and might need a pacemaker and defibrillator replacement this year.

To pull through the emotions, Bonnie writes poetry. But it’s the song "Let’s Bring a Change" by T. Graham Brown that she thinks holds all the answers.

Goaded just enough, Bonnie plays the song on a CD player given to her by a friend. As she sings about pulling together, she looks out the trailer at the crumbling, tired town, and her voice is strong and clear.

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