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Mazomanie board reflects on flooding


September 6, 2018

Mazomanie firefighters were gathered at the station for an evening of regular drills when the first call came in around 8 p.m .: a structure fire in Cross Plains. Within an hour, they were called to assist with a swift-water rescue, their first hint of the sleepless night to come.

“[That call] raised some red flags,” Mazomanie Fire Chief and Public Works Director Mark Geisler told the village board at their Aug. 28 regular meeting. “Obviously, there was some serious water coming down in the watershed we live in.”

As the board met for the first time since the historic flood, Geisler recounted the frantic overnight sandbagging, the early-morning decision to evacuate, and around fifty water rescues that occurred the night of Aug. 20, as well as the numerous agencies who came to their aid and the many volunteers who stepped up in the days that followed, as the area began the long process of drying out and cleaning up.

‘A True Flash Flood’

The Mazomanie firefighters never did make it to that first water rescue call out in Cross Plains, after trying five different routes on state and county roads to try to get through, Geisler said. But back in Mazomanie, as talk at the fire station turned to whether they should be sandbagging, the threat of flooding was a little slower to show itself.

Geisler went out at midnight to check several known benchmarks for flooding in town, driving East Hudson down 78 and into Black Earth and back, and found saw no standing water yet. When he returned a short time later, East Hudson by Voss Road was underwater, water was crossing Highway 14 at the Kwik Trip, and he had to call the Black Earth Fire Department to tell them their station was about to flood.

“It was unbelievable how fast the water appeared,” he recalled. “This was a true flash flood. It came up so fast, it was unmanageable.”

He called Village Administrator Peter Huebner and told him, “Put your emergency government hat on and get down here.”

Firefighters and EMS workers started sandbagging around 1 a.m., with Geisler hauling loads of sand to the fire station in a village truck. He recalled on his second trip via County Road Y coming upon a sheriff’s vehicle shining its lights on a car in the water.

Geisler drove the truck into the water to see if the vehicle was occupied. It wasn’t, but the weight of the truck shifted the water so that it floated away as he approached. From another stranded car, about to be overcome by the rising water, he pulled a woman free and took her back to the fire station.

Sandbaggers worked up Cramer to Crescent, and down Crescent toward the post office, skipping about every other house as the water would catch up to them and they tried to get ahead of it.

At 3 a.m., Geisler put in a call for water rescue teams, not knowing yet if they would be needed but wanting to have the resource available. At 5 a.m., village staff and first responders made the decision to abandon sandbagging and turn their full attention to evacuation.

A call went out via reverse 911, although Village Clerk Sue Dietzen said the call did not reach the many residents who have cell phones instead of landlines. She said an effort needs to be made to inform people to register their cell numbers for emergency situations.

Those who did not evacuate flooded areas in time ended up needing to be rescued. The fire station became a local command post, taking about 100 calls directly by radio from Dane County 911. About half of these were serious active water rescue calls, Geisler said. Rescues were assistance from the Grant County and Beloit Fire Department swift water rescue teams and fire rescue boats from Sauk City, Prairie du Sac fire, and Dane County Sheriff’s Office, in addition to two boats privately owned by Mazomanie first responders.

“We had lots of people moving, and it was quite an operation,” Geisler said.

In the meantime, the village worked with Vanguard to cut power from Bridge Street to Kremer Street for an area of about 25 city blocks.

Rescue efforts continued throughout the day, culminating in a house-by-house search midafternoon on Aug. 21. The fire departments of Mazomanie, Sun Prairie, and Mt. Horeb fire and the Dane County Sheriff’s Department went through 96 houses to check for victims and turn off gas in each home.

That evening, efforts shifted to assisting the Red Cross in setting up assistance for displaced residents.

“At that point, people were coming out the woodwork wanting to help, so it was a challenge to coordinate all those people,” Geisler said.

As the week continued, village staff started pumping out basement and restoring utilities to houses that were minimally affected. A phone number previously used by the fire department was converted to a flood hotline, and volunteers began a door-to-door canvas to distribute information about utilities and trash pickup.

The Saturday after the storm, two hundred people—along with a dozen bobcats and 18 garbage trucks—showed up at 7 a.m. to assist with a massive garbage collection, collecting 26 trucks worth of garbage by mid-afternoon.

As homeowners, volunteers, and outside groups such as Team Rubicon toiled, village staff, Vanguard employees, and electricians worked to restore power throughout the village, re-energizing about 20 homes per day.

Village Trustee Natalie Biel noted the many people, businesses, and organizations who helped, saying the list had grown so long, it would be difficult to properly thank everyone without leaving anyone out.

Village administrator Peter Huebner, when contacted last week, reported that 160 houses had flood damage, with 100 of those houses sustaining damage to both the basement and first floor. Per the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 734 housing units in Mazomanie, so 22% of Mazomanie residences sustained flood damage. Huebner said anywhere from 6 to 12 houses are a total loss.

The area affected stretched from Bridge St. Southeast to Crescent St.

Huebner said one of the biggest concerns in the aftermath of the flooding is providing mental health resources for those affected.

Looking Forward

Mazomanie is likely to qualify for FEMA assistance for repairs needed to public properties, according to Huebner, who said the village sustained damages five times the FEMA threshold. But this only applies to public properties such as roads, sewers, and village buildings.

For public emergency costs and infrastructure repairs, FEMA reimburses 75 percent, with state and local governments sharing the remaining 25 percent. Village staff have consulted with their accounting firm to set up a special account in which all flood-related village expenses will be tracked.

The threshold is much higher for private FEMA assistance—which is aimed more at large-scale disasters such as Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Huebner said, and the state also does not offer much for flood victims. Not much individual help is available, but Huebner said the village will pursue and try to capture any bit of assistance that exists for homeowners.

A list of funding resources for flood victims is being maintained on the village’s website, The village also continues to operate the flood hotline at 608-644-6411. At this point, a main function of the hotline is to direct homeowners to various groups that have come into the area to offer help.

The village board voted to waive inspection fees for electric, plumbing, and heating work related to flood damage, at the request of Building Inspector Tracy Johnson, who did not want to add to homeowners’ hardship.

Johnson, who is usually paid via these fees, will charge an hourly rate to the village for the permit-related work he does. The rate, to be determined, will be approved at a future board meeting.

To minimize the amount that will be charged to the village, and to make the process more efficient, Johnson has been streamlining his involvement in routine replacements. Contractors still need to fill out an application and, in some cases, can fill out and sign an affidavit in place of an inspection.

Standard rates will apply for structural or mechanical alterations.

Village staff have tried to clear up confusion about the inspector’s role. The building inspector makes sure building codes are properly followed. He is not a structural engineer and cannot tell a homeowner whether their home is safe to occupy, or advise them on what steps they need to take.

The village board also discussed what to do about properties that may need to be condemned. They would like to work with occupants of these properties to ensure their safety without taking any steps that would endanger the owners’ ability to obtain federal or state assistance if it becomes available.

Village staff has already been consulting with Brian Berquist, president of its engineering firm Town and Country, on repairs that will need to be done to village infrastructure.

The village board gave authority to the public works director, in consultation with the village administrator and village president, to move forward on emergency repairs that do not meet the threshold for requiring bidding. Geisler said he foresees several emergency needs in the range of $5,000, such as repairs to sewer mains, that will not be able to wait for a special board meeting to be called for approval.

If needed, the board is permitted to call an emergency meeting with as little as two hours’ notice. The board also discussed how to streamline the bidding process for larger projects that are urgent but not emergency.

Joe Block contributed to this story.


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