...to ride atop your house in a flood
By As told to Megan Malugani by Bonnie Olsen
B y the time Bonnie and Roger Oldham realized that their town was being evacuated because of major flooding on the night of August 19, 2007, it was too late to leave Stockton, a town of 685 people near Winona. The Oldhams, along with Bonnie’s 72-year-old mother, escaped to the roof of their home around 11:30 p.m. After a few hours, they heard a big snap that they thought was a tree branch breaking. In fact, it was their house ripping away from its foundation. The house leveled trees and knocked over a neighbor’s garage as the current carried it—with the threesome aboard—about the length of two football fields before grinding to a halt on some already-mangled railroad tracks. Bonnie Oldham recounts the harrowing ride.
After we went over the first 32-foot pine tree, high line wires came over the top of us and were gonna scrape us off the house. Roger saw them in the dark and picked them up over all three of us. That’s how deep of water we were in.
The current caught us all the way around and started turning the house at a half moon. We clobbered a big oak tree and took that out. I think that’s where the damage happened on the back side of the house, and thank God it did. It kept the pressure from building inside the house, because usually houses explode when they fill with water. I was told that our chances of walking off that were one in a million.
Then the house did a full moon and went toward [a neighbor’s house]. When it did the full moon it hit his maple tree and took that down. [That neighbor] had cut a hole in his roof with a saw to get to safety. He knelt and prayed for us.
I hollered one last time [to other neighbors on top of their house]: ‘If you can hear me, if you have a cellular phone that will carry out, tell [Winona County Sheriff] Dave Brandt to tell my son that I love him and I’ll see you guys when I get off here.’
I was not scared on the roof. I was scared of the water. I just thought we were gonna float somewhere and stop. See, I was thinking there was dry ground somewhere, but I was stupid, because there was no dry ground anywhere.
We came to the railroad dyke and Roger said ‘If we hit that, we should stop, but the current is gonna be really bad. It still might break the house apart.’ We went right over the top. Then all of a sudden Roger says ‘We’re only about 50 feet from the woods. We’re gonna die.’ And I looked at him and said ‘Nobody’s dying up here tonight. You don’t talk that way. We’re all gonna be fine.’ And just like someone put the brakes on as slow as could be, the house came to a stop, in the middle of 32 feet of water.
I turned around and I said ‘Look at this big white thing tumbling.’ Here our car came end over end. Then I saw these white things floating through. You couldn’t stand the smell. Here it was fuel tanks of gas breaking open all over.
The tanks would just come right toward the house and then move and it was just like God and my dad [who passed away the year before the flood] were on that roof that night and just turning every obstacle. From 3:15 I kept asking Roger, ‘What time is it?’ He took out a cigarette lighter and he saw all these tanks. He said, ‘Don’t ask me again. We’ll blow up.’
I wasn’t scared. It was faith, and I just know my dad and God steered the boat. There’s a song called ‘Jesus the Savior, Pilot Me,’ and those words rang out in my ears.
My mom fell asleep and I couldn’t get her awake. She was so cold. And Roger fell asleep. I was singing ‘Amazing Grace,’ and I said a prayer to God, ‘Please don’t let them die of hypothermia.’ All of a sudden I thought to start singing ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ and I got a little chuckle out of Roger. He says ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me.’ I says, ‘I had to get you guys awake.’ My mom even joined in a little.
I got out from under the blanket and saw a truck on [Highway] 23. There were jet skis behind it. I tried hollering, but they couldn’t hear me. The wind was blowing my voice. At five minutes to five I saw the water receding. I kept hollering and I heard one of the guys say ‘Listen, what is that?’ He says ‘There’s somebody in the water.’
I kept hollering but they couldn’t figure it out. They thought ‘Oh, its gotta be in town’ and they started walking toward the truck. I hollered one last time and all of a sudden there was a spotlight. He hollers back, ‘We’re gonna get help.’ It was really faint but I heard the word ‘help’ and I thought, ‘They know we’re up here.’