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?