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A tale of two Gays Mills: Flooding inspired part of village to move to higher ground

From the From Tribune files: Flood of 2007 cost seven lives, hundreds of millions in damage series
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GAYS MILLS — A decade and four floods have changed the landscape of Gays Mills.

The village, nestled into the bluffs of Crawford County along the Kickapoo River, has seen a lot of changes since the 2007 flood, the 2008 flood less than 10 months later and the relocation to higher ground of a number of residents and businesses tired of being washed out. The town lost nearly a third of its people after those events, and some of those who remain are divided about the new Gays Mills.

More than 7.4 inches of rain fell overnight Aug. 18, 2007, causing a flash flood with waters up to people's armpits. Harry Heisz, today's village president and a volunteer with the community's fire department, said the fast-moving waters made it risky to reach people trapped in their homes and move them to safety. The water came so fast that there was no warning, he said, and rescuers were going out in boats to help get people out of trees.

Less than 10 months later, another flood came, but this time the village had much more warning. Rain from showers and storms drenched the region with more than 7 inches of rain in parts, and the Kickapoo began to rise again, spilling over its banks and filling the downtown once again with water.

This was a breaking point for some living in the village, as several property owners hadn't even gotten back into their homes before the flooding came again. People started leaving the village, which saw its population drop nearly a third from an estimate of 619 in 2007 to 491 according to the 2010 Census.

For others, talk turned serious about moving those in the flood plain to higher ground. Village staff worked with state and federal agencies including FEMA, the Community Development Block Grant Program and the Wisconsin DNR to help move residents down the highway and up the hill in the village.

Money from these agencies helped buy out businesses or provide them with low-interest loans, Heisz said. A number of town anchors made the move including the Steve Mickelson's grocery story, The Marketplace, that also partnered to bring a new gas station to town. The Crawford Independent, the community's newspaper, as well as other businesses including Lana's Family Hair Care, moved into the village's new Gays Mills Mercantile building, just down the hill from the village's new residential developments.

Mickelson said the 2007 flood caused a large loss of business, as more than 4 inches of water flowed into the grocery store's old location on Main Street. He also lost all of his perishable items when the town lost power for several days during and after the flood.

Then in 2008, water came into the building again. The power stayed on this time, but the building sustained structural damage each time it flooded, and Mickelson said he was about ready to call it quits.

"There were just too many losses," he said. "After putting so much money and effort into it, I just wanted to never see it return."

Now the business is humming in its new location, with customers coming in and out for groceries, gas or fresh deli items. The community has been very supportive, he said, and it's a great boon for the village to have a grocery store, something very few small towns can boast these days.

The downtown hasn't fared as well, with empty lots in between those businesses' that stayed on Main Street. Empty homes or lots also sit on some of the side streets, as people move to the newer properties up the road on the hill.

One of those who decided to stay was Joe Brandt, who has owned the Village Greenhouse on Main Street for more than 33 years. Flooding has become par for the course, he said, with four major floods hitting the village during the past 10 years, with one canceling the village's annual Apple Festival last September and another 100-year flood this past July.

Brandt said he built his business more than 3 feet above the flood plain, so he has never had any water get into the store, but 2007 and 2008 were the years where it was the closest. There isn't much left, he lamented, but Gays Mills is still a beautiful community, and he'd rather be on Main Street, where his business belongs.

"It is a total drag," he said, "but I'll just have to keep on keeping on."


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