OWATONNA, Minn. – Rivers and streams that brought sudden flooding to parts of southern Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin towns were slowly receding, bringing relief to communities hoping to escape an intense fall storm without widespread damage.
The promise of minimal new rain on Saturday after mostly dry weather Friday raised hopes that hundreds of displaced homeowners could soon turn their attention to cleanup.
"We're in the waiting game now," said Kevin Chiarini, even as the overflowing Straight River's waters began moving away from a sandbag wall protecting homes in his neighborhood. "Just hoping Mother Nature is nice to us and this all goes away."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty toured three of Minnesota's hardest-hit towns on Friday — Truman, Pine Island and Owatonna, a town of about 24,000 about 65 miles south of Minneapolis. Pawlenty pledged to work with legislative leaders for a possible special session to approve money for the flood damage.
"These communities may be physically damaged, but their spirit is strong," Pawlenty said.
About 70 homes were evacuated in Owatonna. About 50 miles to the east, all 180 people were evacuated from the small town of Zumbro Falls. More than a dozen homes near a dam in the small town of Oronoco were evacuated Friday for fear that torrential rains had weakened the dam. At least 10 school districts in the region canceled classes.
Across the border in Wisconsin, where 343 homes in Arcadia were evacuated Thursday, signs of life returned to downtown Friday as two swollen creeks retreated and some residents returned. But some people living along the Trempealeau River were asked to leave as that river crept upward before finally beginning to fall Friday afternoon.
As the river rose near the top of Arcadia's two main bridges, residents gathered on the banks, snapping pictures and shaking their heads.
"I'm not freaking out," said Andrew Droullard, who stood on the sidewalk in front of his River Street home, about a half-block from the river. "We're in a swamp. That's all it is."
The 56-year-old handyman said he had 4 feet of water in his basement. He moved his belongings off his floor and packed his truck with essentials in case he had to leave.
"Just watch and wait, said Droullard's neighbor, Jerrod Skilling, 21, a roofer. "Hope for the best."
Skilling sat on his front porch with a case of beer, watching his girlfriend's 4-year-old daughter, Serenity Apicella, frolic in the curb-high water.
North of Owatonna, the north-flowing Straight River's high water was headed for other towns. Medford, which has about 1,000 residents, was sandbagging along the river and Northfield was dealing with flooding in its public safety building.
In Faribault, south of Minneapolis, the wastewater treatment plant was inundated with floodwater Friday, so the city had to bypass the plant and pump untreated sewage directly into the Straight River. Officials said the drinking water is OK. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is set to visit Saturday to check water quality.
Several downtown businesses in Faribault also were overwhelmed by the river.
Many highways and county roads throughout southern and southeast Minnesota were flooded and barricaded. In southeast Minnesota, a bridge in Oronoco started to collapse into the swollen Zumbro River on Friday.
In Wisconsin, flood warnings were issued in more than a dozen counties across the western and north-central parts of the state. Officials working the Hatfield Dam in Clark County issued a "red alert condition," warning that all gates were open. Eighty homes in Black River Falls and seven in the village of Marathon City were evacuated.
In Owatonna, officials said the Straight River was cresting Friday, dispelling worries that two more neighborhoods would have to evacuate. The high water did wash out high school homecoming festivities.
About a third of Owatonna's 24,000 residents lost power Friday morning, but it was restored to most after just a few hours. Schools canceled classes because the flooded roads made traveling difficult.
Owatonna resident Steph Danielson, 29, said she had watched water move up her street since Thursday, leaving a nearby baseball diamond under 3 feet of water. Danielson started stacking sandbags Friday morning, but she was ready to leave with her husband and two young sons if the sandbagging didn't work.
"We have the van packed and ready to go," Danielson said. Later Friday, the water had begun to recede.
Crests are expected in Minnesota early next week along the Minnesota and Mississippi rivers, possibly bringing more problems.
"This is going to be a long-term kind of issue," said Doug Neville, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
Todd Richmond reported from Arcadia, Wis.