After June’s floods, health concerns surface in northeastern Minnesota

Published 5:02 am Monday, July 8, 2024

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By Erica Zurek, Minnesot Public Radio News

Two people stand in a basement

Eric and Rebecca Trip pose for a photo in their basement during clean-up on June 25. The basement filled with about eight feet of water when a flash-flood inundated the city of Cook in mid-June.
Erica Zurek | MPR News

In the small northeastern Minnesota city of Cook, Rebecca and Eric Trip spent days after floodwaters receded cleaning out their damp-smelling basement. It rapidly filled with about eight feet of water in mid-June when torrential rains created a major flash flood. The nearby Little Fork River overflowed after the storms, inundating businesses and homes with water.

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It will be weeks until the full extent of damage is known and months until cleanup is complete in Cook and other parts of the state affected by high water. Residents are now in recovery mode and trying to get ahead of possible health effects from soaked structures.

“You could actually see the water level through the windows. You are looking into the sort of yellowy, orange, brown water and it kept rising,” Eric Trip said.

The Trips live in Rebecca’s childhood home in Cook. Rebecca’s mother, Muriel Simonson, lives next door.

A person holds a smart phone with a picture on the screen

Rebecca Trip looks through photographs on her cell phone and pauses at an image of her 86-year-old mother, Muriel Simonson, being rescued from her flooded house by canoe.
Erica Zurek | MPR News

“They canoed my mother out,” said Rebecca as she scrolls through photos on her cellphone, pausing at an image of her 86-year-old mom being rescued from her flooded house.

The city of Cook and nearby communities sit in a remote watershed surrounded by dense boreal forest and numerous lakes. Residents in and around town also live in a floodplain.

The 500 or so people living in Cook year-round usually receive messages from a flood prediction system when there is an elevated risk.

“But this time was different. The flood happened so quickly,” said Harold Johnston, the mayor of Cook. “Our advice to everybody is dry out. You don’t want mold.”

Molds are complex organisms that produce diverse types of substances that can be irritants and allergens. They may trigger respiratory symptoms like sneezing, coughing and difficulty breathing, and can cause severe illness.

A man stands in front of a sign for Cook City Hall

Cook mayor Harold Johnston speaks on about the flash-flood that saturated the city.
Erica Zurek | MPR News

After water levels go down, buildings typically stay wet long enough to develop musty odors and mold. Dan Tranter, the indoor air supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health, worries about potential health hazards in homes that have flooded.

He said mold does not grow immediately or underwater, but it will begin to show up on walls and flooring after a couple of days.

“When there’s overland flooding, we always say, take out the absorbent materials, like carpeting, carpet pad, drywall and insulation that’s been in contact with flood water,” Tranter said.

Removing these building materials can be costly, and many people in Cook do not have flood insurance or access to licensed contractors to help them with the cleanup. St. Louis County Sheriff Gordon Ramsay sees a lot of overwhelmed people who cannot do the work themselves, particularly older people and those who live alone or are physically disabled.

An empty city street

The water has since receded from River Street and 1st Avenue in the city of Cook, pictured here on June 25.
Erica Zurek | MPR News

“There’s a lot of people that need help right now and it’s very sad to see. I was up north in a flooded area, and clearly you could smell the mold already,” Ramsay said.

He added that with the summer heat mold grows quickly especially in basements with poor circulation.

Groups of people from Cook and the surrounding area showed up at the Trip’s home to help move belongings out of their basement. Unsalvageable items were picked up and taken away. Photographs, sentimental items and a cedar chest filled with family heirlooms dried outside.

“At the moment, it’s a lot of work,” Eric Tripp said. “Sometimes we get a little tearful about how much effort volunteers have put in.”

Several days after the flood, pieces of wet carpet and waterlogged sandbags lie on sidewalks, and dumpsters full of damaged belongings sit on Cook’s streets. Lawns squish underfoot and an occasional whiff of stale sewage hangs in the air. Donations of cleaning supplies, fans and dehumidifiers line the Cook firehouse.

Stacks of boxes and supplies fill a large garage

Cleaning supplies and other donations line the Fire Hall in Cook.
Erica Zurek | MPR News

At the Trip’s home, a box fan draws moisture out of the basement.

“They said at the town meetings that you need to be aware that mold will grow,” Eric said. “There was a lady that came by yesterday afternoon and dropped off some supplies, and she said, ‘Hmm, funky smell.’ And it’s true, but it’s less funky today, and it’ll smell more like bleach tomorrow.”

Rebecca nods in agreement. After they finish emptying the basement, they will wash it, bleach it, let it dry, and then, they say in unison, “move on.”