Friday, September 28, 2018

Water Over The Dam - Part II

The great Kickapoo River flood of 2018 began on the evening of Monday, August 27th, when torrential rains inundated an area from Coon Valley to Hillsboro.  Rainfall totals for that evening exceeded a foot in the Cashton, Ontario and Wilton areas.  In La Farge over five inches fell.  During that first night, the northern Kickapoo Valley communities were hit with record setting flood heights.  Most of the downtown Ontario business district was under 5 to 10 feet of water before daybreak.
            By 4 am on Tuesday, August 28th, word had been received in La Farge of the record setting water that was approaching from upriver.  An army of workers and volunteers began to move what could be saved from the businesses along west Main Street nearest the river.  By daylight the river was out of its banks, crossing the old Highway 131 at Seelyburg and plowing its way toward the village with alarming speed and power. By mid-morning, the Kickapoo River stretched from the bridge west of Nuzum’s all the way to the gas pumps at the Zzip Stop.  And the water kept rising.
            That afternoon over five inches of rain fell in less than three hours in the La Farge area.  The downpour set off a massive flood on area creeks and streams. As the rising waters of Bear and Otter Creeks came careening into La Farge that afternoon, it encountered the already record flood heights of the swollen Kickapoo and had nowhere to go. The water kept rising and by nightfall, the flood crest had breached the drive-thru of the post office – a never before seen height.  Water from a backed up Bear Creek was running west down Snow Street and into the river near the motel.  On the other end of the village, the waters of Bear Creek nearly reached the parking lot of the new EMT Building.
            Rescuing people from their houses was a top priority after the afternoon deluge.  DNR wardens brought a boat to the village and went door to door rescuing people and their pets from their flooded houses and getting them to high ground.  (Check out the rescue video posted on the WKBT – Channel 8 in LaCrosse website of those DNR wardens rescuing people in La Farge that day.  It is mesmerizing to watch – the definition of heroism in many respects.)  
            It took nearly all of Wednesday, August 29thfor the flood waters to leave Main Street in La Farge.  Highway 131 was closed in both directions from the village. To the north, the road had washouts at Bridges 10, 9, 7 and three different locations at Bridge 2 on the northern end of Ferris Flat.  To the south, the river’s floodwaters covered the highway below Tunnelville at Lawton’s and would eventually wash out part of the road there.  Highway 82 through La Farge finally opened for traffic on that evening.
            The flood’s height for La Farge measured at the official measuring station at the bridge next to Nuzum’s was 19.42 feet.  That height eclipsed the previous high water mark in La Farge (set by the 2008 flood) by nearly three and a half feet! By the way, that measuring station was always operating during the flood even though the station did quit sending out information via satellite.  When Lyle Dorscheid, the local gauge reader and the National Weather Service crew checked the gauging station after the floodwater finally went down, they verified that it had always been recording the river’s depth.  What the station could not record was the torrents of water entering the river via Otter and Bear Creeks south of the gauge.
            The power was out in La Farge for most of three days as the village’s generating station on south Silver Street was overcome with the high floodwaters.  The electric power ceased to be at noon on that Tuesday and did not return until mid-afternoon on Thursday, August 30th.  Down river, the Kickapoo inundated Viola, Readstown, Soldiers Grove, Gays Mills and Steuben as its waters raced to join the Wisconsin River.  Almost every village set high water marks, just as La Farge had, with some areas noting water levels nearly five feet higher than any ever recorded previously.
            The record floodwater levels meant lots of damages to several businesses in La Farge.  They included Nuzum’s, the Organic Valley retail store in the old cheese factory, the La Farge Truck Center and Car Wash, Don Potter Realty, the Zzip Stop, Ewetopia, the Premier Co-op, The La Farge Dental Clinic and the La Farge Motel. Water even seeped into the north end of the new clinic on north Mill Street that had been constructed at an elevation level three feet above the previous highest flood.
            In addition, twenty-one La Farge residences had floodwater damage.  All of the houses on Snow Street, eleven in all, suffered extensive flood damage. Many of those houses had been elevated since previous floods, but still had water damage due to the record flood crest. Six houses on south State Street, several that had never had floodwater previously, were flooded this time.  Some of the houses can be repaired and made livable again, but many cannot be fixed.
            By Friday, August 31st, the water had finally receded from Plum Run Road (old Hwy 131) at Seelyburg.  Massive clean up continued in the village.  The Zzip Stop was selling gas by that day after having the gas pumps cleaned and inspected.  Dumpsters were everywhere in the floodway of the village, stretching the length of Snow Street and beyond.  The water had been so high in the motel that all of the rooms had to be gutted.  Dumpsters piled high with flood debris stood beside the motel, Zzip Stop, Ewetopia and other Main Street businesses.  Rental houses on Main Street were damaged too badly to allow the tenants to return.
            The sidewalk outside of the Kickapoo Haven served as a meal site while the power was out during the beginning of the cleanup. Meals were served at noon and in the early evening every day through that Friday, August 31st.   Volunteers, flood victims and those who needed a meal were fed with food donated and made by the Rockton Bar, the La Farge Food Pantry, both La Farge restaurants – Brosi’s and Phil & Deb’s, Bergum’s Grocery, and the Zzip Stop.  The La Farge Fire Department personnel was on call for the entire week helping with rescues, pumping out basements and doing what ever needed to be done to help the people of the community.
            Flood relief supplies were available at both churches in La Farge and the United Methodist Church was soon filled with clothes, food, and other necessities for those that had been flooded out.  The La Farge UM church is scheduled to be open as a flood relief center until the end of the first week of October.   The La Farge Food Pantry, under the leadership of Pastor Mark Phillips, was providing housing and money for those displaced by the flood.  A week after the last floodwaters had subsided, Pastor Mark was still busy finding places for people to live and providing relief in many other ways. Several families displaced by the flood moved into campers parked in the La Farge Village Park.
            By the weekend, the weather had settled down and the river was back in its banks.  Then early Sunday morning, September 2nd, it started raining again.  It rained again on Sunday and several times on Monday, Labor Day.  Another nearly six inches of rain fell in three days and the Kickapoo rose rapidly again. By Tuesday, September 4th, the floodwaters of the Kickapoo River had covered old Hwy 131 at Seelyburg again.  By that evening the river’s water was over Hwy 82 at Nuzum’s and over Mill Street again near the new clinic.  Most of the floodwater had receded by the next day, September 6th, but Plum Run Road at Seelyburg remained under water for another day.  South Mill Street, south Silver Street and Pearl Street on the far southern end of the village were closed for nearly two weeks straight due to high water.
            So where does La Farge go after such a catastrophic flood?  How many people and businesses will leave?  What lays ahead for this Kickapoo River town?  What will be the reaction to this historic flood?

Water Over The Dam - Part I

Where do we begin to describe the great flood of 2018?

            There are iconic scenes that will stick with us, recorded forever (hopefully) in today’s technology by anyone and everyone with a phone in their pocket or purse.  
            There is the video of the Red Angus bull standing in the middle of the bridge in Coon Valley with that “I’m here now and it’s a lot better than where I was before and nobody is moving me” look in its eyes. (What ever happened to that magnificent animal?  That question seems to be floating around a week after the waters subsided.)
            Then there is the photo of the highway sign in Ontario that alerts viewers that Highway 131 going to La Farge is a right turn. When the photo was first posted online, some people did not see the picnic table covered with flood trash sitting on top of the sign – indicating the record setting level of water in Ontario. A week after that record setting floodwater, Hwy 131 remains closed between there and Rockton as several bridge areas of the highway received significant damage from the floodwaters. Maybe that photo was trying to say that it would be no picnic trying to travel the road south to La Farge.
            For Viola, perhaps the enduring memory will be that waterline on the brick walls of the Iron Horse Saloon building on the village’s main Commerical Street.  The water line, with the water soaked red bricks below delineates the heights of the Kickapoo’s record crest in that town.  An after effect of the great flood for Viola is another cancelled “Horse & Colt Show” – the second time in three years.  (The 2016 Horse & Colt Show also had to be cancelled because of flooding – which was the first time in nearly 80 years of having to cancel the annual fall festival.)  That celebration is a homecoming for many and will be sorely missed.
            In La Farge, perhaps the scene captured of the yellow storage building located next to Nuzum’s floating in the middle of Highway 82 between the lumberyard and Organic Valley’s cheese factory building is the one to remember.  As the record setting floodwaters receded the building was moved into a spot in front of the car wash.  That building dates back to the railroad days in La Farge (The last train left town in 1939.) when railroad cars could be unloaded of their cargo into the storage building.  Now the concrete foundation piers where the shed sat are a historic reminder of the old railroad days in the Kickapoo Valley.
            The great Kickapoo River flood of 1935 was the beginning of the end (or perhaps the end of the end) for the Kickapoo railroad line. Despite efforts by village leaders in La Farge and other Kickapoo Valley communities to get some flood control measures through federal programs, the railroad was soon a thing of the past. That flood of 1935 was the standard for measuring flood events until the great flood of 1978, which was surpassed by the great flood of 2008, nearly topped by the great flood of 2017, and now has been eclipsed by the Great Kickapoo River Flood of 2018. 
When the big floods come, the Kickapoo washes away more than ever comes back.

            That old saying from over a century ago about flooding in the Kickapoo Valley was included in the prelude to Volume I of my La Farge history.  Already rumors are circulating about businesses in Ontario, Viola and Readstown that will not reopen because of the great flood of 2018.  People who lived in flood-ravaged homes along the river in towns from Wilton to Wauzeka don’t want to return to their former residences. How many people who lived in La Farge in 2008 and were affected by the flood left the village?  What will it be like this year?  Some people cannot return to their homes because the damage is so great.  Everyone is beaten down by the terrible floodwaters.  Morale is low for many.  This is the third straight year for bad flooding on the Kickapoo.  When will it ever stop?
            The recent 2016-18 flooding on the Kickapoo is eerily similar to the flooding of a decade past.  In 2007, 2008 and 2010, the Kickapoo Valley experienced bad flood events with the flooding of June 2018 being an all-time record setter until the most recent flood.  At the time, people of the Valley were wondering what was going on.  Was this climate change at its worst?
            At one of the Driftless Dialogue talks held at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve several years ago, a speaker from UW-Madison (we think it was Stanley Temple) discussed the causes and effects of the flooding in the Kickapoo Valley between 2007 and 2010.  The main thing that we took away from the talk was that the Kickapoo Valley could expect more of these flood events because of the changes occurring in weather patterns caused by climate change.  The unique and hilly topography of the Kickapoo Valley also was a factor in the intensity of the flooding.  At the time, I wasn’t sure if this theory about continued flood events in the Kickapoo Valley would prevail, but perhaps it is playing out right in front of us once again. 
            We will have to have more on this flooding on the Kickapoo next time.