From the lakes of Minnesota...

The Mississippi River begins as wading waters in northern Minnesota’s Lake Itasca. It ends over 2,500 miles south where it opens into the Gulf of Mexico. But many Washington County residents have set out to prove that they have a deeper connection to the citizens of that region than America’s longest river.

In the weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s rampage on the southern states, residents all over the country have hastened to provide aid and relief to the hundreds of thousands of its victims. The same can be said for local Minnesotans and Oakdale and Lake Elmo city representatives, many of whom have volunteered their time, money and efforts toward the displaced families of what is being called America’s worst natural disaster ever.

“This is probably ‘the big one’ that everybody talks about but never thinks will happen,” said Oakdale Fire Chief Jeff Anderson. “It’s important that ... when a state becomes overwhelmed, they can reach out to their neighbors for resources so they can get back to as normal a life as possible.”

Whether it be through the efforts of Oakdale firefighter Chris Breitbach who spent two weeks assisting victims in Biloxi, Miss., the newly formed Lake Elmo Rotary Club’s fundraising plans or Oakdale Deputy Clerk Sue Barry’s organization of a city-sponsored donation, both cities and residents are finding ways to try and soften the blow of this national catastrophe.

Braving Biloxi

Breitbach, a district chief with the Oakdale squad, is also a member of the Minnesota Disaster Medical Assistance Team, a volunteer emergency response group that is trained for aiding in the recovery from phenomenon like Hurricane Katrina. He was sent to the region days before the storm struck with five other members of the statewide team (his division has a total of about 120 members, according to Anderson).

Although Breitbach was expected to return on Sept. 11 (each tour of duty lasts a maximum of two weeks), Anderson suspected he might be called upon again after he has had time to recuperate. Meanwhile, another member of the Oakdale fire squad has trained with the group and is likely to be sent down in Breitbach’s stead.

Although Anderson said he does not have cell phone communication with Breitbach, the district chief has been able to communicate with his Oakdale colleagues via a direct-connect phone system.

“He said it’s bad. It’s like a war zone down there,” Anderson said. “He’s working in a hospital that has been damaged in the storm but it’s still operational. He said he hasn’t showered in he didn’t know how many days.”

Anderson went on to report that Breitbach and his co-volunteers are surviving on bottled water and military-style MRE’s (“meals ready to eat”). After working 18-hour days, Breitbach said he might get about six hours of sleep at night.

Breitbach’s Disaster Medical Assistance Team completed much of its training at the Oakdale fire station during the past year, Anderson said.

Breitbach is not the only Oakdale firefighter eager to lend a hand.

“I’ve got six to eight people who say they’re willing to go down for a couple of weeks at a time,” Anderson said.

Preparing for neighbors

Other local safety squads are awaiting their chance to help as well. Lake Elmo Fire Chief Greg Malmquist said his crew has been put on standby if the Federal Emergency Management Agency needs additional resources. Oakdale Police Chief Bill Sullivan and County Sheriff Steve Pott expect their officers might be asked to help accommodate the estimated 3,000 evacuees who may be moving either temporarily or permanently to Minnesota in the coming weeks.

Pott added that the county has a self-contained mobile command post that could be useful in reestablishing communications, if needed.

“I don’t think any of us can really imagine the magnitude of what it’s going to take to restore order and get things back to some kind of normalcy down there,” Pott said. “But if we have the resources and they can’t get them, I think responding is the right thing to do.”

In Lake Elmo, the fledgling Rotary Club (begun a few months ago) recently met to determine ways in which it could help donate some of those resources. Rotary president and City Council Member Liz Johnson helped form a committee to be led by John Schiltz (owner of the Lake Elmo Inn) that will identify methods of fundraising or possibly setting up a clothing drive.

“If (the evacuees) are going to be here for any length of time, obviously they’re not going to have the right clothes,” said Schiltz, who has also begun collecting cash donations in a large jar at his establishment. “We want to help and show our concern up here and this is our way of doing it.”

For Johnson, the effort to aid is both personal and professional. As the director of operations with the local United Way, she has been collaborating with partners like the Salvation Army, the American Red Cross and the non-profit group Hope for the City in order to identify needs for migrating families, both short-term and long-term.

“They’ve left everything, they need everything,” she said. “Furniture, clothes, food, schooling. Basic connections that we take for granted.”

A river runs through it

On a broader level, the Washington County Board of Commissioners recently entered the county into a mutual aid agreement through the Department of Homeland Security. The resolution authorizes County Administrator Jim Schug to distribute resources, including law enforcement, communications and financial assistance, as they are requested and are available.

Meanwhile, Lake Elmo Administrator Martin Rafferty said he knew of residents who were asking for ways they can help and some that have gone on-line to register their home as available to house evacuees from Louisiana and Mississippi.

Sue Barry, deputy clerk for the city of Oakdale, has taken the initiative to organize a raffle to raise money for the cause. Because the city can’t legally sponsor a raffle, she hopes to convince the Oakdale Business and Professional Association or the Lion’s Club to take on the duties.

Her idea is to collect as many donated items from local businesses (flower seeds, T-shirts, movie passes, etc.) for a gift package that one ticket-buyer will win at a drawing, possibly at the end of October (with proceeds going to the Red Cross). She has already taken a collection from city staff that was matched by Best Buy for a donation.

“I think it’s the least we can do to give a few dollars,” Barry said. “The more people who throw in a few dollars, it becomes a lot of money.”

And, similarly, what begins as ankle-deep water in northern Minnesota eventually becomes a surging river that flows into an ocean.

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