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Presbyterians flock to Moose Lake to 'Flood Homes with Hope'

Moose Lake City Councilor Curt Yort stood outside his home Monday afternoon chatting with a sea of blue-shirted volunteers who came to help him.

The volunteers were Northland-area Presbyterians who headed to Moose Lake this week to repair homes still suffering from damage more than a year after last June's historic rain and flooding.

Several volunteers spent part of the week working inside the flooded basement at Yort's First Street home, which required new sheetrock and finishing work on the walls.

"It was low-priority on my list to get done," said Yort, who is also paying a contractor to take care of some additional repairs to his house. "I wasn't going to get around to it for quite some time."

Yort, a retired teacher who lives alone, was just one of several homeowners getting help. About 45 members of the Presbytery of Northern Waters were signed up to work on four homes in Moose Lake and another in Cloquet this week, according to Pastor Kari Jutila of Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Duluth. The Presbytery covers Presbyterian churches throughout northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.

The work was coordinated by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) and Flooding Homes With Hope, a group of regional government agencies and nonprofits that seeks to assist with ongoing flood recovery efforts.

"With Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, it's very common that we go to places after disasters," Jutila said. "We always provide financial assistance, which we did right away last year with Flood Homes With Hope. But we also have church members and groups that go and do work."

Many of the same volunteers went to Minot, N.D., to offer assistance in the wake of the town's June 2011 flood. Volunteers have also traveled to numerous other locations throughout the country, including New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

This time, the work hits a lot closer to home.

"The difference this time is that you get to sleep in your own bed and things are a little more normal," Jutila said. "There are so many here that have been affected by the flood. We've helped them, and now they're out here helping others."

Paul Rigstad is all too familiar with the historic June 2012 flood in the Northland.

The church he had attended since 1949, Westminster Presbyterian in West Duluth, was flooded by a broken culvert, devastating the church's basement and foundation. The building's contents have been auctioned off and the Grand Avenue church is set to be demolished.

But the hardships at Westminster didn't deter Rigstad and a handful of other congregants from lending a hand to those in Moose Lake.

"We had a lot of people come to help us," Rigstad said. "We support one another."

Rigstad said this is his 10th disaster relief trip. In addition to working with PDA, he spent several years leading University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) students on missions to disaster-struck locations, including New Orleans.

"We certainly understand flood damage," he said. "Even with New Orleans, so much of the damage was caused by flooding, not by the hurricane itself."

Flood Homes With Hope serves as a case manager for flood-affected homeowners in the region. The group selects homeowners to receive rebuilding assistance, particularly those who can't afford repairs or are unable to do the work themselves.

It wasn't until a Sunday night orientation that the Presbyterian members learned that they would be headed to Moose Lake.

Glen Avon Presbyterian Church Pastor Robyn Weaver was one of the volunteers on-site this week. She also worked with Rigstad on UMD trips and has been involved with past PDA projects.

Weaver said she gets satisfaction out of helping others who cannot complete repairs on their own, whether its due to finances, health or other circumstances.

"What PDA has always responded to are the folks who are not in a position to finish their own projects, financially or otherwise," Weaver said. "That's what we love the best, is being the labor."

Moose Lake, a town of just under 2,800 people, was one of the hardest hit communities during the 500-year flood. The most significant damage was caused by flooding of the Moose Horn River.

Yort said he has spoken to many Moose Lake residents and believes many will be working on lingering flood damage this summer. Many could still benefit from the work of Flood Homes With Hope, he said.

"Really it takes awhile to figure out what you want to do [about damage] and then by that time we're into winter," he said. "I think in the summer here, we'll really start seeing things take place."

Yort said he was surprised by the large presence of volunteers when they rolled into town Monday.

"It was sort of overwhelming when I saw all of these people here," he said. "I was surprised by the size of the crew and just how quick they could get work done. ... This is just a fantastic, fantastic help."