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Wisconsin communities rebuild after flood

Trout Brook flows through where it washed out Wisconsin Highway 13 near North York in July 2016. (file / News Tribune)

One year ago, floodwaters washed out roads, destroyed homes and claimed the lives of three people in Northwestern Wisconsin.

Streams and rivers overflowed their banks after rainfall of 8-10 inches or more began on July 11, 2016, prompting Gov. Scott Walker to declare a state of emergency in eight counties and instruct the National Guard to provide assistance. A week after the flooding, the damage estimate in Northwestern Wisconsin topped $30 million and an estimated 350 homes were affected. The flooding also affected the Moose Lake area and parts of Pine County in Minnesota.

Three people were killed in the flooding. Mitchell "Mitch" Koski was a 58-year-old Montreal, Wis., firefighter who was responding to a call for help from Saxon Harbor when his vehicle was swept away in the floodwaters. Elmer Lippo, 82, of Marengo, was found dead in the Marengo River near Riemer Road after he had attempted to drive through water flooding over the road about 12 miles south of Ashland. Delmar Johnson, 84, of Tower Lakes, Ill., drowned when his vehicle entered a flooded ditch and became submerged along County Highway M east of Cable.

The flooding hit Saxon Harbor hard, destroying the harbor's marina and campground and washing out nearby roads. Nineteen boats sank or were set adrift. Saxon Harbor will receive more than $1 million for dredging and repair work needed after last year's flood. All of the roads are back in service and the harbor has limited use.

Among the flooded rivers, the Bad River reached a new record level near Odanah, cresting at 27.28 feet. The previous record of 22.20 feet was set in 1946.

The Bad River Band hasn't fully recovered from last year's flooding, said Dylan Jennings, a member of the tribal council. For him, it was months before things started to feel like they were getting back to normal after the flood.

"Our roads crew is still out and working and addressing some of the repairs on some of our back roads that still need repairing," Jennings said.

About 10 families were displaced after the flooding destroyed their homes. The tribe has worked to assess and meet the needs of those families when they found themselves homeless.

"We knew when this flood hit that it wasn't a quick fix. It was long-term damages that were done. It's quite the process," he said.

Since the flood, Bad River has been considering further development to its emergency management plan, he said. The Menominee tribe provided Bad River with a lot of assistance from emergency planners during the flooding, he said.

"They were wonderful. They were absolutely were some of the biggest help that we received in sending their staff up to help us through the process, setting up our command center, everything. They really did help tremendously so that forced us to look at what we need to do next to make sure that we're as prepared because these kind of things could happen at any moment, maybe not a flood, but something else," Jennings said.

Flooding impacted 11 state roads and caused $12 million in damages, said Diana Maas. Seventy-five percent of those roadways were repaired and reopened within a week of being closed, with the remaining roadways reopened within 120 days.

The state's roads are designed for a 100-year flooding event and last year's flooding was anywhere between a 500- and 1,000-year event depending on the location.

"It was just so off the chart that some of our structures aren't designed for that magnitude. But it's so rare. We have to balance our cost with the benefits that we get. It would be so costly if we designed everything to a 500-year event because it's so rare that it happens," Maas said.

WisDOT was grateful for its partnerships with municipalities, counties and other state agencies in northwestern Wisconsin that led to an efficient process in restoring mobility quickly for the region, Maas said. It came down to being proactive and staying on top of communications, as well as experienced personnel in the region.

"That is something that we're just so grateful for — working with our counties. Counties that weren't even involved in the flooding were sending up traffic control signs and really pitching in. It was like all hands on deck even if their area wasn't impacted. We could count on our partners in other counties and municipalities to lend a hand. That was just really amazing and crucial to the efficiency of our response," Maas said.

City and county staff "are really the first on the ground," she said. "They see the damage first and then they call us and then everything gets set into motion. I think we all walked away from that being so grateful for the help that we have in each other in the field."

In Bad River, the flooding brought the community together to do what was necessary to help each other during a trying time, Jennings said.

"What we saw was the community coming together in full force and a lot of different communities in the area coming together to address the needs of our people," he said. "On behalf of the band, we'd like to acknowledge the help that we received from all of the surrounding communities and all of the tribal communities far and wide and also the federal and state relief funds that kicked in too that are still continuing to help us to rebuild and take care of our infrastructure."

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