Central Wis. levee weakens; neighborhood becomes virtual island as water covers access road

By Todd Richmond, AP
Monday, September 27, 2010

Wis. neighborhood becomes island as levee weakens

PORTAGE, Wis. — Floodwaters from the burgeoning Wisconsin River turned a rural neighborhood into a virtual island Monday, cutting off dozens of homes from the outside world.

The river was seeping through and surging around a levee protecting the Blackhawk Park neighborhood in the town of Caledonia just southeast of Portage. The only road in was covered by nearly a foot of rust-colored water.

Greg Matthews, spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said the levee was in “bad shape” Monday night but that officials were optimistic conditions would improve before there was a complete failure.

A few homes in the neighborhood’s low-lying areas were surrounded by water, but most of the houses stood on high ground and remained untouched Monday afternoon.

Emergency workers asked people to leave Sunday as the river began to rise after last week’s heavy rains overwhelmed rivers. Some 300 people live in the neighborhood, and Columbia County Emergency Management director Pat Beghin said about 25 homes remained occupied.

Beghin said the worst-case scenario was water could wash away the access road, stranding those residents for up to a week.

A century-old earthen dike, part of a 14-mile berm, separates Portage and the neighborhood from the river. But the river rose so high and so forcefully it surged around the dike and poured into the bottom lands around the neighborhood, said Steve Miller, director of the DNS Bureau of Facilities and Lands.

The rising water chipped away at portions of the berm system Monday afternoon. Much of the levee protects forest and farmland, but a breach in the Blackhawk Park portion could make matters far worse for the neighborhood by potentially washing away the access road.

DNR workers patrolled the length of the berm Monday, using sandbags to control the seepage. Matthews said the effort seemed to be working.

The woods around Forrest Travis’ fishing camp were a bog. Water rushed across the gravel service road a few steps from his camp, but Travis, a 53-year-old part-time construction worker, said he spent Sunday night at the camp and didn’t have any plans to go anywhere.

“I’m not worried about it,” Travis said. “It would have to get a lot higher to get where we’re standing.”

Diana O’Neill, 56, a retired De Forest police officer, evacuated Sunday. On Monday, she inched her truck along the access road, creating a wake, to get back to her house.

Her place was still dry when she arrived. She grabbed three dozen eggs and her Chicago Bears shirt for the big Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears game on Monday Night Football and inched her way back out. The water was easily an inch higher than when she drove in.

“I’m kind of a risk-taker,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the road being overrun I would have stayed here. I’ve got stuff to get done.”

The Wisconsin River runs along the outskirts of Portage, a city of about 10,000 people some 40 miles north of Madison that touts itself as “Where the North Begins.” The river had overflowed its banks by dozens of feet, pouring onto low-lying roads.

Residents ventured to the water’s edge to watch as the river surged by.

Staring at the churning water, Shawn Schweitzer, 39, of Portage, said that usually at this time of the year the water is so low you can nearly drive across the river bottom.

“Now it would be bye, bye,” he said as he watched the current swirl and eddy. “I’ve never seen it move this fast.”

In Blackhawk Park, Kevin and Lindsay Remus chose to bundle their 17-month-old daughter, Amanda, and leave Sunday.

Kevin Remus told the Portage Daily Register they decided to leave because the road could soon become impassible. The family went to the American Red Cross reception center at St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Portage.

State and local officials were so concerned about the integrity of the 14-mile levee system homeowners built in the 1890s, a group was established to study it.

The group recommended in 2007 that because the levee was so unsafe and unable to protect against flooding, property owners should be offered incentives to move.

Community leaders said they needed time to digest the study’s findings, and very little has been done to make any changes since the report came out, Miller said.

Beghin says authorities are monitoring other towns along the river where minor flooding has occurred.

National Weather Service hydrologist Bryan Hahn says the Wisconsin River reached a record level of 20.59 feet Monday at 6 a.m. That breaks a previous record of 20.50 set back in 1938.

The river was expected to hold steady through Tuesday, Hahn said, then slowly decline over the next seven days. Forecasters expect the weather to remain dry in the area for the rest of the week, although a flood warning remains in effect in Columbia County.

Water levels in the storm-bloated Big Sioux River in South Dakota were stable Monday after up to 4 inches of rain last week pushed the waterway over its banks along a 50-mile stretch from Brookings to Sioux Falls.

About two dozen homes in Renner, the worst-hit town, were affected by the rare autumnal flood, Renner Fire Chief Mike Schmitz said.

Mike Gillispie, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service, said water levels across Minnehaha County would stay level then start to drop in 24 hours.

Separately, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty reached an agreement with legislators on a special one-day session next month to approve relief money for people affected by floods in that state.

Heavy rain last week caused serious flooding in parts of southern Minnesota. The small towns of Zumbro Falls and Hammond were among the hardest hit.

Associated Press Writer Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., contributed to this report.

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