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Duluth woman, 100, loses home of 62 years to flood

DULUTH, Minn. -- As water rose in the yard of 100-year-old Hunter Lake resident Hazel Lafler, she packed enough to stay with her neighbor for one night.

Hazel Lafler, 100, holding her 1½-year-old great-great-niece
Hazel Lafler, 100, holding her 1½-year-old great-great-niece, Isla Radzak, takes the loss of her home on Hunter Lake in stride, describing the situation as spilled milk that can't be picked up again. Lafler is now staying with her niece and nephew. (Bob King / Forum Communications)

DULUTH, Minn. -- As water rose in the yard of 100-year-old Hunter Lake resident Hazel Lafler, she packed enough to stay with her neighbor for one night.

"I was going overnight, so that's all I did: packed a toothbrush, pajamas and a robe," she said. "But I never got back into the house. By evening, it would have been impossible."

Nine inches of rain on June 19 and 20 raised the Cloquet River -- connected to Hunter Lake -- to flood level. It grew worse when Minnesota Power's Island Lake dams were opened, pouring even more water into the river and into the home Lafler had lived in since 1950.

Two weeks later, Lafler went back again to see her longtime home about 15 miles northwest of Duluth.

The dock remained under water. A few family photos still hung on the walls, and the smell of mildew hung in the air. Appliances had been removed from the kitchen where she had baked her beloved strawberry and chocolate pies. Electricity was shut off, but a clock running on a battery still kept time.


Lafler had no flood insurance and will not rebuild her house.

"Not at this age," she said. "I suppose if I were a lot younger I would feel differently about it. But I've lived long enough. You know you're not going to live forever."

She hasn't yet decided what to do with the land where she fished, knitted and entertained family for decades, first with her husband, Paul, and then by herself after he died.

Eight other Hunter Lake homes were flooded, she said, and at least six on Bowman Lake, also connected to the river. Minnesota Power opened the dams to prevent additional flooding.

After the first night of flooding, Lafler went to stay with her niece's family. Water had come through the floor of her basement-less Fredenberg Township home and had risen 12 inches. The water outside was so high that Lafler's niece and her husband canoed to the property -- using the road -- to check the house on June 21, and they had to quickly dock at the steps to avoid being pushed into Hunter Lake.

"That was scary. There was a current, and it was quite deep," said niece April Radzak, whose son, Matt Radzak, later waded chest-deep to reach the house. Water had risen to the eaves of an ice house down by the lake and had covered a neighbor's motorhome windshield.

Lafler said the river had risen to high levels before, in 1991. Then, she said, she used a row boat hooked to her front steps to reach dry land. She would have done it this time, too, if her neighbor hadn't come to retrieve her.

"She's pretty resourceful," April Radzak said.


Lafler's refrigerator, oven and other appliances were ruined. A pontoon boat was driven to the house to load up furniture to try to dry it out, but much was lost. Some clothes and household items were retrieved, and what could be donated was given away.

"We had hoped it (the house) could be saved, but once you got inside, you could see it was impossible," April Radzak said.

The Radzaks' three sons and their wives, along with April's husband, Tony, and neighbors have been working to clear out the house. Lafler has been back to sort through things, as well.

She will now live with the Radzaks.

"I had a good niece and nephew who welcomed me in," she said. "I guess you can't expect much more."

She hasn't thought much about living with others again after living alone for 40 years. She admits she's been very independent but said she has always been close to her niece and her family.

"It doesn't feel like I lost any independence," she said. "I can come and go as I please. It's not any different. Maybe when I get to thinking about it, and settling down, then it will break. But I am OK in my situation."

With age comes perspective, she said, about acceptance and knowing what can and can't be fixed.


The situation devastated her, she said, "but there isn't anything I can do about it. It's like spilling milk: you can't pick it up."

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