A year ago, torrential rains damaged dams in the watershed above and drained into the village of Coon Valley.
It rained as much as 6 to 10 inches the evening of Monday, Aug. 27, and did not let up.
When Coon Valley flooded in the early hours of Tuesday, Aug. 28, there was so much water that Coon Creek, a picturesque stream about 25 feet wide where it swings around the northern edge of the village, swelled into what resembled the Mississippi River.
At Veterans Memorial Park, the creek submerged the village baseball field where Scott Servais, manager of the Seattle Mariners, once played for Westby High School. The water nearly swallowed the roof of the park’s concession stand before climbing to the second floor of the announcer’s booth. As the water fanned out, it washed away the cedar gazebo, two shelters, a storage shed, a fleet of picnic tables and part of the walking path along Coon Creek.
Homes and businesses outside the 100-year floodplain that hadn’t flooded before were deluged. Firefighters worked in the dark, driving front end loaders that teetered as they plowed through several feet of water to pluck stranded residents from house decks and second-story windows. The water was so deep on one street that there was enough clearance for a rescue boat to drive over a submerged Jeep.
Evacuated residents dropped off at the village hall had to seek higher ground at the fire station, then the elementary school, as the waters advanced. Renita Williamson, Coon Valley clerk and treasurer, remembers a man with a dazed expression wandering aimlessly with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, sirens blaring in the background. She had no idea where he was going. She wasn’t sure if he knew.
Last year’s flood felt like something out of an apocalyptic movie, Williamson said. “I’ll never forget it. I never want to experience that again.”
One year later, the village is still grappling with what comes next.
Looking back, looking forward
Rebuilding your life after a major flood is a highly individual decision. But a common refrain even a year later among flood survivors is a sincere gratitude and respect for the firefighters, emergency rescue teams and volunteers that helped during and after the flood.
Lou Ann Wolff and her husband were rescued through the second-story window of their Central Avenue home by a front end loader last year.
“I can’t say enough good things about our Coon Valley fire department and our village workers,” Wolff said. “Nobody drowned and nobody got hurt.”
They returned later that morning to a waterlogged house with a crumbling foundation and everything in their garage washed away, Wolff said. “It’s hard to see everything you own pretty much gone.”
The August floods were declared a major disaster and FEMA money was made available to help people find temporary housing, replace their flood-damaged belongings and make repairs.
The Wolffs’ house qualified for about $20,000 in individual assistance from FEMA, but wasn’t enough to cover all the necessary repairs, Wolff said. Their home of 26 years was so badly damaged it would have cost $140,000 just to make the structure sound again, she said.
In the end, they didn’t cash the check, Wolff said. “We decided that we weren’t going to put the money back in the house because it could flood again. And it did.”
They moved to another house in the village far enough from Coon Creek that she would feel safe, Wolff said. “I don’t know that I could have slept another night in that house.”
Mary said she viewed the extreme amounts of rain, the breached dams and the flash flood through Coon Valley last year as a perfect storm. She’s waiting to see what the future brings, but said she wasn’t too worried about the 2018 flood repeating itself.
‘Can’t go through this every year’
Lately, a lot of people have been asking Coon Valley village president Karl Henrichsen what the village is doing to make the flooding stop.
People bring up their frustrations over the Hwy 14 bridge, Henrichsen said. The common complaint is that the pylons supporting the bridge don’t provide enough clearance over Coon Creek.
Since the big flood last August, Coon Creek has flooded twice more over the highway bridge.
“The village can’t go through this every year,” Henrichsen said. “The people want answers, and we don’t have answers.”
In fact, people seem more annoyed by the most recent flood than the big one last August, said Roger Niedfeldt, park board president and village trustee.
You could write the August 2018 flood off as an exception, Niedfeldt explained. “Now, it’s just discouraging when this happens again.”
In July, 5 to 8 inches of rain caused Coon Creek to flood again.
It washed away the park picnic tables the village had just replaced for Trout Fest, Niedfeldt said. Most of Veterans Memorial Park is in the floodway, the area which the moving river occupies during a 100-year flood. The water also claimed half of the freshly delivered infield mix that was supposed to cover the baseball field damaged in last year’s flood and washed away more of the park walking path.
The village is trying to find a new location for the ballpark away from the main road so it won’t have to keep sinking money into flood repairs, Niedfeldt said.
There will continue to be shelters at Veterans Memorial Park, but the new ones will be moved outside the floodway and built with materials that are easier to clean after a flood, Niedfeldt said.
Henrichsen said people have also been bringing him their concerns about the breached dams, which are maintained by the county.
Robert Nelson, who was rescued with his wife, Romaine, from their home last August, has no doubt that if the dams had held, their house would have been fine.
In the almost 41 years they have lived on Mahlum Street, they have never been flooded until last year, Robert said.
That night, the Nelsons, who live just outside the floodplain, had so much water in their basement that the sump pump couldn’t keep up, Robert said. Water crept up the stairs until it was one step from entering the first floor of their home.
Firefighters evacuated Romaine through the first-floor window, Robert said. By the time it was his turn, the water had risen fast enough that he had to be picked up from their front deck. They still can’t thank the emergency responders enough, Robert said.
The Nelsons lost everything in their basement, which they now keep empty except for the water heater, Robert said.
Things feel like they’re getting back to normal, “but the rain makes us unsettled,” Romaine said.
Now they pay extra attention to the weather report and may look into flood insurance, Robert said.
Mostly, he wants someone to do something about the dams, and fast, Robert said. “I’m going to be 80. I can’t wait until I’m 90.”
Building for the future
The Coulee Region, with its ridges and valleys, is no stranger to flooding. The steep elevation changes and narrow valleys shed water quickly. If you look at the terrain from above, the valleys in this area look like the veins of a leaf, channeling water to the stem.
Coon Valley sits roughly in the middle of the Coon Creek Watershed. Flooding and soil erosion were so severe in the past that the Soil Conservation Service chose the Coon Creek Watershed for the nation’s first land conservation project in the 1930s.
The Soil Conservation Service continued to address flooding in the 1958 Coon Creek Watershed Work Plan, which mapped out land-management targets and called for a network of dry dams to regulate the drainage area above Coon Valley.
Fourteen dams were built in the Coon Creek watershed between Monroe, Vernon and La Crosse counties.
But dams are only as good as the size of the flood they’re designed for. The evening of Aug. 27, the intensity of the rainfall was greater than what the dams could handle, said Bob Micheel, Monroe County conservationist.
Three dams in the watershed breached at approximately 2:15 a.m. Aug. 28, Micheel said. Six dams overtopped.
According to the 1958 Coon Creek Watershed Work Plan, the dams were designed for up to 5.2 inches of rain in six hours, a 1 in 50 annual chance occurrence. They were meant to limit peak flood flows for about a quarter of the drainage area above Coon Valley.
On a recent visit to the breached Korn dam northeast of Coon Valley, the damage was plain to see. So much water flowed through the watershed that night that it overwhelmed the dam’s principal and auxiliary spillways before finding the next available path: where the dam meets the hillside.
When the redirected, concentrated flow hit the shale and sandstone hill, the hillside melted away, Micheel said.
What’s left is a cut about 30 to 40 feet wide between the dam and the hill that resembles a small canyon littered with soil, shale and sandstone rubble from the hill.
Between the three dams that breached, about 70,000 cubic yards of fill washed downstream in a few hours, Micheel said. The county is in the process of repairing dams with minor to moderate damages.
As for the three dams that failed, the three counties within the Coon Creek watershed have applied for a federal grant to study how water drains through the watershed in light of changing trends in land use and rainfall patterns. The watershed study will include a cost-benefit analysis for the flood-control dams.
With this study, they can decide whether to rebuild the dams, and to what degree for the future, Micheel said.
Throughout the country, 10-year storms, which have a 1 in 10 chance of happening in any given year, are occurring about 40% more often than in the 1950s, said Daniel Wright, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In the eastern half of the U.S., 100-year storms are happening 85% more often.
It’s very clear that climate change is increasing the number of storms we’re seeing, Wright said. “If we continue to ignore these problems, the cost of ignoring these problems is going to increase as the planet continues to warm.”
Given the new normal, it might not be possible to design a dam big enough to solve all our problems, Micheel said. “We need to do a better job regulating where we put houses and roads in the valley floors and moving people out of flood’s way. We have to build for the future because nature will test you. Nobody’s exempt from these events.”
Micheel picked up a piece of rock rubble. “This is just a reminder.”
The damage to the ballfield caused by the repeated flooding of Veterans Memorial Park in Coon Valley is severe. Coon Valley park board president and village trustee Roger Niedfeldt is early in the process of finding a new location for the beloved village ballfield.