Vernon County authorities today recovered the body of a man after mud pushed his town of Wheatland home from its footings down a bluff side amid days of heavy rainfall.
Michael McDonald, 53, was inside his house when it slid onto Hwy. 35 some time before 5 a.m. today, according to the Vernon County Sheriff's Department. Authorities found his body at 1:17 p.m.
Torrential rain has triggered landslides, flooding and multiple road closures throughout the region and contributed to a train derailment in Crawford County.
Some areas have received more than 5 inches of rain since Tuesday night, according to the National Weather Service in La Crosse, which has issued flood warnings through Thursday afternoon.
The 3.17 inches of rain measured at the La Crosse Regional Airport was the third highest 24-hour rainfall ever for the month of September.
Mike Dagnon lives on Rush Creek Road near Ferryville, which he said was covered with 2 feet of water, mud and a jumble of downed tress.
“I saw a fish swimming down the road,” Dagnon said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
La Crosse County weathered Wednesday’s storm fairly well, according to county officials, with all state and county roads open on Thursday. Keith Butler, La Crosse County’s emergency services coordinator, said there might well be some issues with town roads being impassable.
“Things are settling down,” Butler said late Thursday morning. “We escaped the brunt of it today. Yesterday was the worst.”
The operator of the Lake Neshonoc dam near West Salem issued a “yellow alert” at about 11 p.m. Wednesday prior to opening the dam’s flood gates wide. Butler said yellow alerts are common in the spring but rare in connection with storm events.
West Salem Village Administrator Teresa Schnitzler, who lives on the shore of Lake Neshonoc, said the lake water level had risen to 8.6 feet before the flood gates were opened, well above the 8 foot level the dam operator shoots for as a maximum.
“He had to open it,” she said. “It was a lot of pressure on the dam.”
The release of water from the lake contributed to a 4 foot rise in the La Crosse River levels from Wednesday to Thursday, but Butler said there had been no major issues from the high water levels so far.
As a precaution, eight campers were moved to higher ground late Wednesday at the Veterans Memorial Park campground east of West Salem, but campground manager Darlene Guinn said it turned out the campers would have been OK without being moved. “We were lucky,” she said. “We thought there would be more water coming down after they opened the dam.”
The worry now, Butler said, was additional rain triggering mudslides. “I’m thinking that the slopes are still a little fragile right now,” he said.
Butler said his department had no reports from residents or businesses of flooding, although there were plenty of people with wet basements. He did note that Bangor’s Veterans Memorial Park was hit hard by flooding. Flooding in the park last year knocked out a bridge over Dutch Creek.
Jackson County is under a state of emergency with the Black River in Black River Falls expected to crest at 58 feet this afternoon, although flooding in the city isn’t likely.
Sheriff’s authorities urge motorists and pedestrians to avoid flooded areas because of unseen hazards.
“While we understand that people would like to survey the damage, the conditions could be very unsafe,” sheriff’s Sgt. Evan Mazur said.
Two hydroelectric dams in Jackson County are structurally sound and not expected to fail, Jackson County Emergency Management Coordinator Kristina Page said. One gate at the Black River Falls dam was damaged by debris and released from the main supports, although no extra water was released because all gates were open at the time.
The worst of the rain was over by Thursday morning, with the National Weather Service expecting 1 to 2 inches through this afternoon, mostly south of Interstate 90. Hourly rainfall of a quarter inch or less was predicted.
Even with the subsiding storms, the National Weather Service extended a flash flood warning through 1 p.m. for Vernon, Crawford and Richland counties in Wisconsin and Allamakee County in Iowa. A flash flood and flood watch remains in effect until 7 p.m. for a wide area north of the area, with the flash flood warning, including La Crosse, Monroe, Trempealeau, Buffalo and Jackson counties in Wisconsin and Houston and Winona counties in Minnesota.
Hwy. 35 is closed between De Soto and Prairie du Chien, and other major road closures are affecting Vernon, Crawford and Jackson counties. Officials in the Vernon County town of Sterling are requesting no unnecessary travel there because of roads damaged by the flooding.
Several homes along Main Street in the Gays Mills area were evacuated due to flooding. Those residents are staying with family and friends. The Gays Mills Apple Festival, originally scheduled for this weekend, has been postponed until Oct. 7-9.
Bliss Road in La Crosse, which has been prone to washouts in severe weather, was open as of Thursday morning.
While the Wisconsin Department of Transportation's Lang Drive project has been delayed by the rain, project manager Todd Waldo said workers still expect work to finish by Sept. 29.
“As long as we don’t get another week of rain, we’ll definitely be done by Oktoberfest,” Waldo said. “Once we get a dry day here, that will pretty much wrap things up for the project.”
Waldo expects work to finish early next week.
A river flood warning also has been issued for the Black River near Galesville. At 3:45 a.m., the river stage was 7.3 feet, with crests expected 3 feet above the 12-foot flood stage by Saturday evening.
National Weather Service meteorologist Pete Rogers cautioned people to be safe.
"Our main point is people should understand the severity we're dealing with," Rogers said. "If there is water over roads, don't drive through it. Mudslides and washouts are being reported. There were some swift-water rescues reported in Crawford County near the Vernon County border overnight. Safety is key."
Rogers said rain fall may stop late this afternoon, but it will resume and continue through the weekend.
"We are in a moist air mass, and we have several more days of heavy rain to go through," Rogers said. "The situation is changing rapidly, and both our office and the (Vernon County Sheriff) dispatch office is receiving a lot of calls."
Rogers said that after flooding comes to a halt, historic comparisons will have to be made between current flooding and the 2008 floods.
"We've had 30-to-60 days of wet conditions and we're looking at setting several records," Rogers said. "As of yesterday in the La Crosse area, we were 11 inches above normal for rainfall for the year."
Vernon County residents should expect flooding along local branches and in the Kickapoo River, Coon Creek and other areas hit hard by flooding in 2007 and 2008.