Major flooding is a familiar occurrence for communities along the Kickapoo River in southwestern Wisconsin. But the magnitude of the water that swept through communities along the Kickapoo River last August eclipsed everything else.
Between Aug. 28 and Aug. 30, the swollen Kickapoo River broke records set in the great flood of 2008.
Areas that flooded before flooded again — and then some. Streets and parks turned into lakes. Properties raised after previous floods became islands.
In the days that followed, the roads were lined with ripped-out floors, walls, furniture, appliances and other ruined possessions. Volunteers arrived from near and far to help remove debris, clean up and provide meals and cleaning supplies.
One year later, the water is gone and the Kickapoo River is back in its banks. But for many, the already slow recovery process is starting to feel more circular than straight, especially as communities flood again and again.
A record flood
The Kickapoo River, 125 miles of winding river that runs from Wilton to Wauzeka, has such a reputation for flooding that you have to refer to specific floods by their year.
In recent memory, there’s the flood of 1978 that helped expedite Soldiers Grove’s relocation to higher ground. The floods in 2007 and 2008 pushed Gays Mills to follow Soldiers Grove’s lead. 2016 and 2017 brought yet more floods.
In 2018, persistent rain the evening of Aug. 28 drained into the Kickapoo River and set new record heights in the villages of Ontario, La Farge, Viola, Readstown and Gays Mills.
The Kickapoo River has flooded so many times that Vernon and Crawford counties hold the state record for most emergency declarations due to flooding, a fact mentioned in the governor’s federal disaster declaration request.
Vernon County also had the highest per capita flood damages, $400 per person, according to the request.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency approved $8.9 million in individual assistance for Wisconsin individuals and households, including $1.8 million to Vernon County. FEMA also approved $10.4 million in public assistance for community recovery projects, including $1.3 million for 36 applicants in Vernon County.
Recent estimates for damages to Vernon County totaled about $2 million in damage to businesses, $12.6 million in damages to homes, and $14.5 million in damages to public infrastructure, according to Brandon Larson, director of Vernon County Emergency Management.
The Wisconsin Emergency Management received 160 buyout requests across the state after the flood, said Lori Getter, WEM crisis communications manager. This number was winnowed to about 120 applications because the cost of 160 buyout requests would exceed the approximately $11 million FEMA had set aside for hazard mitigation projects, Getter said. The state is now in the process of doing cost-benefit analyses and other studies on each of the properties before the applications go to FEMA for approval. The entire process can take 18 months to two years, Getter said.
A downstream look
The village of Ontario is known for being the “canoe capital of the Kickapoo.” Tourism is a major part of its economy.
In the flood of 2018, the popular launchpoint for kayaking and canoeing the Kickapoo River saw 15 inches of rain in less than 24 hours, said Terri Taylor, village clerk.
Six feet of water cascaded into Ontario’s community center used for local graduations, birthdays, weddings and funerals. Floodwater also damaged municipal buildings, roads, and the park.
About three quarters of the downtown area where South Street meets WI-131 sits in the flood fringe, areas that have a 1% of being covered in standing floodwater in any given year. Unlike the floodway, the river and bank areas occupied by a 1% annual chance flood as it flows downstream, development that meets floodplain ordinances are allowed in the flood fringe.
Taylor counted 18 businesses affected by flooding within the village. Eight are in the flood fringe, Taylor said.
Under FEMA and the DNR’s floodplain management program, whether a building can be restored to its pre-flood condition depends on a threshold called substantial damage, said Michelle Staff, a certified floodplain manager at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Staff coordinates federal, state and local floodplain development and the National Flood Insurance Program for the state.
If repairs cost equal or exceed 50% of the structure’s assessed value, the building is considered substantially damaged, Staff said.
By law, buildings in the flood fringe that are substantially damaged cannot be rebuilt to their original condition before the flood. They must be mitigated to meet local floodplain ordinances through flood-proofing, elevation, or a property buyout, Staff said.
If FEMA approves the application for hazard mitigation funds, the agency will contribute up to 75% of the mitigation costs. A combination of individual, local and state dollars make up the rest.
Taylor said she didn’t know if some of the business would return.
About 22 miles downstream in the village of La Farge, the river came over Main Street about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and flooded the post office three and a half blocks away by noon.
So much water inundated the municipal electrical building that utility director Wayne Haugrud would have been submerged if he had been standing outside. The water flooded the switchgear box and the back-up generator housed inside and caused about a quarter million in equipment damages, Haugrud said. The village lost power for 51 hours.
Now every time there’s a heavy rain, Haugrud said he worries about equipment damage and the village losing power. The backup generator was damaged before in the 2008 and 2017 floods, Haugrud said.
The village wants to relocate the building, a move that will cost an estimated $1.745 million, Haugrud said.
The village applied for two federal grants to pay for plans that would map out the move, Haugrud said. They had initially applied for FEMA mitigation funding, but was told they’d only receive 15% in federal aid.
Haugrud said he hoped they would get approval for the planning work by next year. “I hope we can have (the utility) moved in five years.”
Until the village moves the utility building away from the flood fringe, Haugrud said he won’t be able to relax.
‘The hardest thing I’ve ever lived through’
La Farge resident Cindy Heding is in a similar situation.
The village applied for nine FEMA mitigation projects, many of them buyouts, for homes and businesses. Heding’s house, which has been through four floods in 10 years, is on that list.
Last year, Heding and her 12-year-old beagle, Molly, were rescued from their house from floodwaters rising faster than she had ever thought possible. “Molly was such a trooper and I was scared to death.”
Heding returned to find two feet of floodwater in her home of 21 years. She lost everything in the garage. She’s been fighting a mold and mushroom infestation ever since. The problem is so severe, she doesn’t let her grandchildren visit for their safety, she said.
Between the mold, the smell and the stress, Heding said she has trouble breathing.
Heding is looking to move elsewhere while she waits for a buyout, but finding an apartment has been difficult, she said. “Rent is so high in a lot of places and I’m on disability. All my money is invested in this house.”
Now she feels stuck, she said. “I hate it. I just hate it. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever lived through.”
The Kickapoo River cuts through the village of Viola as continues downstream. The river reached flood stage in the village of Viola about 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, Au. 28 and continued to rise another 10 feet before it crested.
If you count the green space, about 40% of the village of Viola is in the floodplain, said village clerk, treasurer and administrator Beth Campbell. When the village floods, water blocks state highway access in and out of the village except at a single dirt road that becomes difficult to navigate in the rain.
In last year’s flood, every building the municipality owned was flooded except the village hall, Campbell said.
Operating budgets are drying up since the village has to pay for flood recovery expenses up front and then wait for FEMA reimbursements, Campbell said.
They’ve been reimbursed for 2016 and 2017 flood damage repairs, but are still waiting on 2018, Campbell said.
With all the hurricanes, wildfires and floods around the country, Campbell said she’s concerned that there is less federal aid to go around. “The 2008 pots of money don’t exist today.”
If the frequency of flooding continues to increase, there are concerns that businesses might get worn down and leave and there’s limited space in the village, Campbell said. A couple of businesses downtown have already asked her about how to apply for permits to relocate elsewhere in the village.
In the village of Readstown, flooding from the Kickapoo River compounded by water from two dams that breached in Vernon County turned the stretch of Hwy. 14 that separates the northeast and southwest part of town into a giant lake. The sign on the river gauge marking the 2008 record river height of 19.65 feet became obsolete by three and a half feet.
The village was still submitting claims to FEMA for previous flood recovery expenses when the 2018 flood hit, said Susan Mueller, village clerk and treasurer. Now Mueller has a new binder labeled 2018.
The sewer system’s monitoring system cost $80,000 to replace, Mueller said. The village needs at least $75,000 for bank restoration. In some places, the river banks were eroded down to their riprap foundations.
Tourist Park, just next to the river, has also been a source of headache. It had just been restored from a previous flood before 2018.
There’s nothing more frustrating than repainting, powerwashing, repairing the electrical work only for the results to get washed away in the next flood, Mueller said. “You put so much effort into making it good, and then…”
Repeated flooding has strained the village’s budget so much that they’ve had to cut Readstown’s only full-time police officer’s hours to part-time, Mueller said.
There are seven houses waiting for buyouts and another three outside the floodplain that have been abandoned. Mueller said.
As those residents move away, the tax base shrinks and the village water and sewer rates will have to increase, Mueller said. This would burden many of Readstown’s residents, who tend to be older and have lower incomes, Mueller said.
If Mueller had it her way, she’d move everyone out of flood-prone areas so that rescue crews won’t have to put themselves in danger every time it floods. “People’s lives are more important than houses and where we want to build them.”
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Cindy Heding's home of almost 21 years developed a mold problem after a record-breaking flood hit the village of La Farge in August 2018. Heding is hoping for a home buyout from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She worries that she and her dog, Molly, are being exposed to unhealthy air from the mold.
Wayne Haugrud, La Farage utility director, stands in front of an electric pole at the municipal electric building. Floodwaters from the 2018 flood reached the pink ribbon marker above Haugrud's head. The village lost power for 51 hours and sustained about $250,000 in equipment damages. The village wants to move the utility building out of the flood fringe. The relocation would cost an estimated $1.7 million.