DODGE — Tears trickled down Keith Jereczek’s cheeks as he surveyed the damage to his childhood home in the wake of recent floods.
When the Trempealeau River spilled over its banks late March 15, the home he’d grown up in and now owns was among the first in this Buffalo County community of just 414 to start taking on water. Before it was over, Jereczek, his daughter and a dozen neighbors had to evacuate.
Jereczek’s voice caught as he recounted how helpless he and his 19-year-old daughter Paige had felt upon returning that Friday night to find their home under siege.
“We had water over the backyard and water starting to go into the front yard,“ the self-employed financial consultant said.
Within half an hour, their front yard was submerged and water was inching closer to their home.
“I was shocked,” Paige said, adding that they hadn’t heard anything about a flood. “We had no idea that this was coming.”
In a panic and not sure who to call, Jereczek turned to Dodge town chair Dan Lilla for help. “We’re in trouble. We’ve got flooding. Can you help us,” he recalled telling Lilla.
Lilla contacted the fire department, recognizing Jereczek’s predicament. “He gets hit the hardest first,” he said.
As the floodwaters moved ever closer, Jereczek’s heart sank; help wouldn’t arrive until morning and the best he could hope for was a pile of sand. It quickly became clear, they and their neighbors were on their own.
“Our manpower is rather limited ... many of them had been working throughout the day helping neighboring communities,” Lilla said. “Even at that point, we didn’t realize how quickly that things were going to happen.”
However, Jereczek called the town’s failure to anticipate the flood and prepare residents incompetent and negligent.
“We had no preparation from the town — nothing — they didn’t do anything,“ he said; what became a disaster could have been averted.
According to Lilla, the floods were made worse by warm weather and heavy snow dumped during the long winter. These conditions accelerated flooding, leaving the town with little time to prepare.
“You could anticipate that something was going to happen but it came about pretty quickly,” he said.
Lilla said the fire department, which had been monitoring river levels, had planned to start taking preventative measures last Saturday morning.
However, Lilla isn’t sure sandbagging would have even helped given Trempealeau River’s record flood stage.
“There were places that were affected that I don’t think have ever been affected like that,” he said.
With help hours away, Jereczek and his daughter had to haul sandbags left over the from the last flood in 2017 in a futile attempt to hold back the engorged river.
After hours wading through the frigid waters, they eventually turned in for the night, praying the sandbags would hold the waters at bay.
But, by 1 a.m. Saturday, it was clear their efforts had been in vain as their kitchen began to flood.
“That’s when I knew it was hopeless,” Jereczek said.
After waking his daughter, the two spent the next few hours trying to save what they could, moving valuables to the second floor and lifting furniture up and away from the rising waters.
When the fire department arrived about 5:30 a.m. Saturday, the first floor was submerged under more than 14 inches of water. In the garage? Nearly four feet of water, Jereczek said.
“I’d never seen anything like that in my life,” Paige said.
According to the National Weather Service, the Trempealeau River reached its highest level in recorded history — 13.44 feet.
While far from the first flood they’d weathered, it was the first where water had actually made it into the house.
In the week since the flood, Wisconsin Rep. Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi, said he has fielded countless calls from local officials, community leaders and constituents while trying to clean up after his own home flooded.
“I’m planning to assess the damage in the entire district in the upcoming days,” he said.
He urged his constituents to reach out to their county emergency managers and report damage by calling 211, and encouraged local government leaders to reach out to his office for help coming up with solutions.
“Local official officials need to take the initiative to bring these issues to my attention,” he said, pointing to efforts in Arcadia to build a levee. “There are many communities that could step up to the plate and say we need to invest in flood mitigation.“
As Jereczek and his daughter tried to pick up the pieces in the days after the flood, shock quickly turned to anger and disappointment.
Just days before the flood struck, Jereczek said he’d approached the town board about whether they would discuss sandbagging given the amount of snow they’d received the month earlier, but was told it wasn’t on the agenda.
And this wasn’t the first time Jereczek had tried to bring the issue to the board’s attention. After a string of floods struck Dodge in 2017, he tried to initiate a discussing into a long-term solution.
However, after meeting with Pronschinske and members of the DNR and Army Corp of Engineers, the board chose not to pursue a study that would have investigated solutions, including building a berm along the Trempealeau River, Jereczek said.
“They had a chance to do a free study ... to determine what could be done, but the town board chose not even to apply,” he said adding that the town board seems to be more concerned with keeping property taxes low rather than addressing the problem.
“There are small communities that do things,” he said. “They find ways.”
Whether the town of Dodge has the means or will to prevent future floods remains unclear, Lilla said.
“We’re a very small town to start with and our funds are quite limited,“ he said. “I don’t know if it is possible in our town.”
He said the town would need significant assistance from state and federal agencies to make a long-term solution possible.
Despite the disaster, Jereczek remains hopeful the flood — which forced nearly a dozen Dodge residents to abandon their homes — will drive the board to act.
“We need different leadership, that would help number one,” he said. “Number two, we need to seriously look at an option to protect the whole town.”
He said if something isn’t done soon, the floods will just keep coming and wipe out more and more properties until there is nothing left of the community.
Whether Jereczek will be there for the next flood remains to be seen.
He said until now he’d never considered leaving or selling this home, but “now we’re almost forced to consider that option. ... It’s beyond difficult and hard.”
Whether he will be able to afford the repairs necessary to make the home livable again is another question left unanswered. He said it’s not like he can write a check for $500 and make the problem go away, adding the damages could easily exceed $30,000.
“We’re resilient, we’ll figure out what our next steps will be,” Jereczek said. “Right now we’re going to clean up, move things out.“
“We had no idea that this was coming.” Paige Jereczek