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Fond du Lac residents still love the neighborhood

Keith Ross of Superior grabs a shovel to help clean up Dennis Towns' basement in Fond du Lac Tuesday afternoon. Towns' whole basement -- much of it finished -- was underwater during the flood. Ross volunteered to help neighbors clean up and move broken appliances. Bob King | Forum Communications

Barbara and Dan Aker's washer and dryer are destroyed. Water filled their basement and came to within an inch of their first floor. Their driveway and front yard are strewn with soaked possessions brought out of their garage. They have electricity, but no telephone service, no Internet, no mail delivery, no garbage pickup.

What do they think about living in the Fond du Lac neighborhood now?

"It's a wonderful place to live," Barbara Aker said Tuesday morning as she stood at the front door of the Second Street home where she and Dan have lived for more than 30 years, looking over the muck and mud left from the St. Louis River's floodwaters.

Significant progress has been made in Duluth's oldest neighborhood since late last week. Two lanes of state Highway 23 were dry in both directions by Tuesday morning, although the road was still closed to all but neighborhood residents and service vehicles. Trees uprooted by massive mudslides had been removed from the lower part of Mission Creek, where they had plugged the creek at the highway. Waters in the creek and the river were receding. Second Street, where the Akers live, was no longer under water.

Still, the neighborhood was a mess. From the back of Jack and Pat Erickson's house on Sixth Street, it looked like a giant hand had torn out a forest of mature trees and laid them flat. If the oak trees he planted in his backyard hadn't held, Erickson said, "we would have been in trouble."

The lot next to the Ericksons' house was a surreal, swampy landscape of trees clinging to mud, their roots exposed.

Seas of mud replaced areas that were recently under water. "We had fish going by our deck in back here," Barbara Aker said.

But if any Fond du Lac residents have become disenchanted with their neighborhood in the wake of last week's devastating flood, they weren't in evidence during visits Tuesday or Friday, two days after the flooding began.

"It's a wonderful community," Barbara Aker said. "It's like its own little village. We all get together in the evening."

Next door on Second Street, Pat Kohlincq and Tari Rayalacq, both 47, live with their sons, Matt, 13, and Lee, 11, in a big, two-story house built in the 1870s.

"We love the house," Kohlin said.

The house is next to Mission Creek and across the street from the St. Louis River. As with the Akers, the water filled their basement but stopped within an inch of their first-floor joists. In addition to the loss of appliances, Kohlin and Rayala lost some photo albums, including wedding pictures, to the flood.

"We got a couple of crates of historic photos, but we missed a crate or two," Kohlin said. "They got wet."

Jack and Pat Erickson were up all night during the storm June 19 and 20, removing possessions from the basement of the home where they've lived for 40 years. They had just returned from vacation on Tuesday, and if they hadn't been home, "we'd have ruined a lot of stuff that we feel quite dear about," Jack Erickson said.

They couldn't have slept that night amid the sounds of huge trees snapping under the force of mudslides.

"That sound was unbelievable," said Erickson, 69. "It was scary. It really was."

The Ericksons stayed home during the flood, but Kohlin and Rayala and their sons left via airboat. After two unsuccessful attempts to return, they finally came home on Saturday evening.

The Akers spent part of June 20 in their camper a little ways up on state Highway 210. Barbara eventually evacuated, but Dan was one of the few Second Street residents to stay. He planted a stick on the front yard and vowed that he would leave when he no longer could see the stick. Their son, Lucas Aker, came by in a kayak to check on him, Barbara Aker said.

As residents removed ruined appliances, scooped out mud and pumped out water on Tuesday, help poured into the neighborhood.

A Red Cross medical team canvassed Second Street, checking on residents. A feeding station and spot for community meetings has been set up at Fond du Lac Community Church. Police are stationed at a temporary command post and are patrolling the neighborhood. Minnesota Department of Transportation personnel, using heavy equipment, worked upstream, continuing to unplug Mission Creek.

"One of the top priorities now is getting (the creek) open again," said Jim Hansen, Duluth police public information officer. "Mission Creek rerouted itself into the neighborhood."

Reopening Highway 23 is also a priority, said Beth Petrowske, MnDOT spokeswoman. Both Hansen and Petrowske said it's not yet known when that will be.

It's also not easy to know when life in the neighborhood will return to normal. But Fond du Lac residents remained philosophical.

"There are so many people that are worse off than us," Barbara Aker said. "This is pretty bad. But we're going to have a better basement, and I finally got my husband to clean out the garage."