VICTORY — By 5 p.m. Thursday, there was little sign to people driving through Victory that the residents there had just gone through the worst night in memory, a soggy night that claimed the life of one of its residents and caused major damage to several roads and at least half a dozen homes.
A layer of dried mud remained on Hwy. 35 where it passes through this unincorporated enclave with a spectacular view of the Mississippi River 18 miles south of La Crosse in Vernon County. Motoring through at 55 mph, people couldn’t know that 13 hours earlier a chunk of bluff at least 15 feet wide had broken loose after two days of heavy rain, rumbling down the hill onto the highway and taking Michael T. McDonald’s obliterated house with it.
“In my 33 years in Vernon County law enforcement, this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” Sheriff John Spears said at the site of the Victory cleanup.
Although sheriff’s department officials feared the search for McDonald would take days, they found the 53-year-old man’s body at 1 p.m. beneath six feet of mud near McMichael Street, just down the hill from where his house had stood. McDonald’s clothes and a comforter found with him seemed to indicate he had been in bed when the mudslide hit his house, said Vernon County Sheriff’s Department Lt. Scott Bjerkos, who led the search.
Water was still running off the hillside as Bjerkos and about dozen others used an excavator to probe the debris. An educated guess based on where the house had been and the path of the slide helped keep the search relatively short.
The mudslide hit about 4 a.m., bringing the Wheatland Fire Department back to Victory for the second time that night. Department members had just gone back to the fire station in Redmound, four miles east of Victory, after getting paged out at 2:30 a.m. for storm-related problems. After that second page, Wheatland Fire Chief Donnie Stokke found the highway covered with a giant mound of mud, boulders and debris, with downed live power lines still arcing.
Excavating equipment and dump trucks from the Vernon County Highway Department and more than a dozen dump trucks from Lepke Trucking and Excavating in Chaseburg were on the scene all day, lining both sides of the road as they waited to haul load after muddy load to a nearby quarry for temporary storage. In all, the cleanup filled about 60 truckloads.
Bjerkos was amazed the way Lepke Trucking stepped up to help in the cleanup. “That’s what living in a small town is all about,” Bjerkos said. “Everybody comes to help.”
He also was amazed at how much punch the landslide packed. As they searched, they found a mangled skid steer that had belonged to McDonald. “There was not a straight piece of metal on that,” Bjerkos said. “It was basically flattened like a pancake. That’s a lot of force.”
That same level of force came to play just north of McDonald’s house. A box culvert on Stevens Street got plugged with debris during the stormy night, sending the water rushing and the mud it carried with it into several homes and ripping up the pavement.
Late Thursday afternoon, Wheatland Town Chairman Robert Streeter surveyed the damage from atop the culvert on Stevens Street, watching an excavator dig mud and small boulders out of the drainage channel that was supposed to keep the nearby houses safe. And, he noted, another mudslide north of Stevens Street had damaged three houses and a greenhouse.
Streeter said he’d heard reports that the two days of rain had dropped at least 7 inches of rain on his town, with one report of 11 inches. Of the 25 roads in town, only two were completely passable Thursday.
The storms had wreaked havoc all over Vernon County, with 89 roads closed as of Thursday morning, according to Spears. By mid-afternoon, only nine of them had been cleared for traffic.
And as Hwy. 35 was getting close to ready for traffic again, a boulder the size of four cars tumbled down from the bluff onto Hwy. 35 between Victory and DeSoto. With the help of heavy equipment the boulder was moved onto the shoulder of the road, but Spears said the rock would be too big to move without breaking it apart.
Officials didn’t relish the thought of another night with rain in the forecast, considering how saturated everything is already.
“This has been devastating,” Spears said.