Flood-damaged levee holds, some residents of Wisconsin River town evacuate

Monday, September 27, 2010

Flood-damaged levee holds in central Wisconsin

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

A levee protecting the Blackhawk Park neighbhorhood in the town of Caledonia just southeast of Portage was deteriorating rapidly, sending foot-high, rust-colored water across the only street in. A few homes on the neighborhood’s low-lying areas were islands onto themselves, but most of the houses stood on high ground were still untouched Monday afternoon.

Emergency workers asked neighborhood residents to leave on Sunday as the river began to rise, but about 75 of the area’s 300 residents elected to stay in their homes, said Columbia County Emergency Management director Pat Beghin.

If the levee breaks it could destroy an already flooded access road, he said.

The woods around Forrest Travis’ fishing camp were a bog on Monday. 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 wasn’t going anywhere.

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

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources engineers were inspecting the 14-mile levee system, which includes some dikes built mainly of sand in the 1890s.

DNR spokesman Greg Matthews said water is bubbling out of some portions of the levee. Emergency workers have sandbagged those areas, but some saturated portions of the levee system could collapse, Matthews said.

“The entire levee continues to degrade,” he said, adding that DNR workers are repairing what they can.

The river overflowed its banks into low-lying areas of Portage, a city of about 10,000 some 40 miles north of Madison. Some residents ventured to the water’s edge to watch the river race 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,” referring to the floating debris. “I’ve never seen it move this fast,” Schweitzer said.

Down the street, Linda Levaggi, 47, a Walmart employee, sat on a bench near the river drawing the swift water on her sketch pad. Levaggi said she wasn’t worried about her home because she lives on high ground, but that has never seen the river so high.

“It is a concern,” she said.

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 Episopal Church in Portage.

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.

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