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News Sickle Arrow NSA Black Earth Cross Plains

By Joe Block 

Tragedy, recovery, hope

A year after last August's catastrophic flood Mazomanie and Black Earth regroup


August 22, 2019

Robert Campbell

A child's stuffed animal sits on a fire hydrant, above the floodwaters on Bridge Street in Mazomanie, on July 21, 2018. Families had minutes to evacuate, and took only what they could carry.

"These folks went to work their regular jobs, then came home and worked until eight or nine at night, depending on what was at the curb. It was an awful situation, but I tell you the meaning of community was seen each and every day, terrible and beautiful all at the same time."

That is Michelle Danz describing the cleanup effort in Black Earth in the weeks following the Aug. 20-21 floods in 2018. Black Earth residents hauled 378 tons of mixed debris totaling $58,384. The fire station had two feet of water. The west and east Highway 14 bridges had water flowing over them, and then were washed out or impassable.

In the early hours of Aug. 21, Mazomanie Fire Chief and Public Works director Mark Geisler called village administrator Peter Huebner and told him, "Put your emergency government hat on and get down here." He had just called the Black Earth Fire Department to let them know their station was about to flood.

At the headwaters of Black Earth Creek in Cross Plains, a weather station recorded more than 13 inches of rain. The National Weather Service estimates 11 to 13 inches of rain fell over the rest of the valley. The rain was localized: just south of the Wisconsin River, at Sauk Prairie 1.5 inches of rain fell; Mt. Horeb recorded around 2 inches.

The water rushed west, flooding Cross Plains, then Black Earth, then Mazomanie. It came at night with very little warning. By 3 a.m. on Aug. 21 Black Earth Fire had evacuated the village. At the same time, 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 warning Mazomanie residents of the need to get out.

Those in Mazomanie 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 performed by the Grant County and Beloit Fire Department swift water rescue teams and fire rescue boats from Sauk City, Prairie du Sac fire, and the Dane County Sheriff's Office, in addition to two boats privately owned by Mazomanie first responders. In the meantime, the village worked with Vanguard to cut power from Bridge Street to Cramer Street for an area of about 25 city blocks.

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

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

By evening, "people were coming out the woodwork wanting to help, so it was a challenge to coordinate all those people," Geisler recalled.

By the end of the day on the 21st, 160 houses in Mazomanie 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 percent of Mazomanie residences were hit by flood damage. Anywhere from six to 12 houses are a total loss. As of today, three have been torn down.

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.

In the following weeks, residents of both villages picked up the pieces of their lives and homes. In Black Earth, based on those who called into the 2-1-1 line, there were 144 reports of residential damage. Eleven businesses reported in total over $3.6 million in estimated damages. Village administrator Shellie Benish said at the time, "We need to heal and rebuild this community. This will be an ongoing process. Many were displaced and lost everything."

She continued, "[We need] funding sources for our residents and businesses to rebuild. Working with other government agencies to find funding that will not be any more of a burden to our businesses or residents is paramount."

Benish also added, "It is really important that our sincere thank you goes out to all the volunteers that have helped with this crisis in our community and our neighbors. Team Rubicon, AIA, Red Cross and the hundreds of volunteers that came out in droves."

County-wide, Dane County Emergency Management ultimately concluded residential damage totaled $78 million, with citizens reporting only 2 percent of those damages insured. Businesses reported 17 suffering major damage, 27 with minor damage, and 63 affected by flooding, for a total of 107 businesses. The estimated dollar amount of business damages is $37 million with businesses reporting only 2 percent of those damages insured.

County and local government spent $2 million for clearing debris, just under $1 million for protective measures (emergency response, sandbagging operations, etc.), $7 million for emergency response and repairs to roadways, $5 million for repairs to water control infrastructure (e.g. culverts, water diverting infrastructure), $8 million of loss and expense to public buildings and equipment, $10 million of loss and expense to public utilities, $5.6 million of damage to parks, recreational facilities, and any other uncategorized loss.

Total public sector damage was $39 million. Residential and business losses totaled $115 million.

The flood led to physical isolation for Mazomanie and Black Earth as well. Highway 14 was impassable east to Madison and west to Mazomanie. Black Earth was nearly an island, its only connections were Highway 78 to Mt. Horeb and eventually Highway KP to Mazomanie and Cross Plains. During the flood the village was surrounded by Black Earth Creek on three sides.

Mazomanie, during the flood, was cut in half. The bridge at Bridge Street was under water, as was the State Street bridge. Mt. Horeb Fire Department came from the south and Sauk County and Prairie du Sac across the Wisconsin River from the north. The official detour after the flood took drivers into Sauk County and back down south to Madison.

Former Governor Scott Walker approved a $2.8 million emergency contract to reconstruct the Highway 14 bridges. The project began on September 14 and was completed two months later on Nov. 19. Kraemer North America of Plain completed the project in record time, and received an award for it.

U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin announced $1.5 million in emergency relief transportation funding after the flood as well, to help repair roads and communities damaged by storms and severe flooding. The U.S. Department of Transportation released emergency funds to the State of Wisconsin for areas throughout the state.

In Mazomanie, the Highway 14 bridge just to the east of Mazomanie was damaged in the flood as well. Wolf Run Trail was severely damaged, with pedestrian bridges washed away downstream. A $683,000 emergency contract from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation added protection to one of the bridge piers and restored the sloped embankment under the structure, along with the retaining wall and the stretch of trail washed away in the flood.

Wolf Run Association, which administers the four-season, multi-use trail, teamed up with Gateway to The Driftless, a regional nonprofit promoting Northwest Dane County for outdoor recreation, to coordinate the overall trail restoration effort. "Damage to the trail at the viaduct was so horrible that at first we thought it would take years to reopen, not months. On behalf of the community we're very grateful to WisDOT for including restoration of the trail in their bridge repair project," said WRA President Peter Wolf.

Faced with the prospect of uninhabitable homes, the village of Mazomanie looked to use FEMA funds to buy out properties. Wisconsin asked for $50 million to cover flood damage across several counties in south central and south western portions of the state. The federal government instead offered $10 million. FEMA would only cover 87.5 percent of the costs for buyouts, so the village would have to cover 12.5 percent of the costs, including demolition, inspections, and other upfront costs. Ultimately, Mazomanie chose to offer buyouts to eight property owners.

As weeks turned into months, fundraisers sprouted up in both villages. Wisconsin Heights School District held one, as well as providing food and shelter at Mazomanie Elementary during the flood. The Peoples Community Bank raised $212,000 which was distributed to 95 applicants. Area food pantries and businesses gathered clothes, food, and necessities for flood survivors. Individuals stepped up, helping survivors clean and repair their homes.

The public works departments worked tirelessly for their communities. They filled sandbags, cleared and hauled garbage and made repairs as quickly as possible. Mazomanie's Fire Chief and Public Works director was recognized for his efforts during the flood. Geisler was a steady, calm influence on the community when floods tore through Mazomanie later summer. "Our job was to get people to safety. People came out of the woodwork to help. Someone needed to manage that, and I was that guy," he said. His colleagues felt he deserved recognition for that effort.

Geisler was the recipient of three awards for his efforts. He was recognized as firefighter of the year by the Wisconsin State Firefighter Association. Village board members and co-workers nominated him. "I was honored to be selected for that." In March, Geisler received the United Way Community Volunteer Award. Finally, Geisler received the March WKOW Jefferson award.

The Black Earth Fire Department faced a difficult recovery. Floodwaters reached two feet up the walls in the station, destroying equipment and firefighter quarters. Peter Kaminski, treasurer of the Black Earth Firefighter's Association, explained the damage: "Our station had the creek go through it - there was two and half to three feet of water in it. All of our appliances were destroyed, all of our desks, cabinets, and seating needed to be thrown out. We had to remove and replace our bathroom fixtures and drywall below three feet, the damages were mostly not covered by insurance and primarily repaired with volunteer labor and paid for by raised funds. In addition to the damage to the station, many volunteers lost their personal vehicles to the floodwaters while parked at the station and out running calls. Some volunteers even lost the shoes that they had kicked off in the station to throw on their gear. Despite the damage and our exhausted crews our department remained in service, running 35-plus calls and evacuating around a hundred homes during 30 hours around the flooding."

File photo

Residents frequently feel anxiety when it rains, a year after the flood. The spring rains and thaw brought back bad memories for many.

They spent $14,000 from Association funds to fix flood damage to the station instead of spending it on rescue equipment as had been intended. In late spring, the department received a swift water rescue boat from the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation. The boat has been used several times in the past few months for water rescues on the Wisconsin River.

As the communities recognized a year since the flood, a survivor's picnic was held in Black Earth over the weekend. The picnic took place a short distance from Black Earth Creek. A year ago the park was under several feet of water. That day, despite a wet spring and summer, as well as recent heavy rains, the creek gurgled past, within its banks. Residents-survivors-gathered, enjoyed a potluck, and chatted amongst themselves. Time had passed, healing had begun, and there was hope.


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