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Flooding turns deadly in western Wisconsin

GAYS MILLS — Billy Heisz stood in front of his sister’s house on Highway 131 in Gays Mills late Thursday and saw nothing but water from the flooding Kickapoo River surrounding the property as well most of the older part of the village.

“There was no water on the property at 6 a.m, but by 6:30 it was all the way out to the highway,” Heisz said. “It was quick and it’s a problem.”

That scenario played out throughout much of western Wisconsin Thursday — with some catastrophic results — due to heavy rainfall earlier in the week on already saturated ground that led to flash flooding, mudslides and road washouts.

With more rain in the forecast, authorities are concerned that this flood will be worse than the ones that wrecked havoc around the area in 2007 and 2008.

Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in 13 counties — Buffalo, Chippewa, Clark, Columbia, Crawford, Eau Claire, Jackson, La Crosse, Monroe, Richland, Sauk, Trempealeau and Vernon — after authorities said anywhere from five to nine inches of rain fell in the area this week. Flash flood watches and flood warnings continued throughout the region late Thursday.

In Vernon County near Victory, Michael McDonald, 53, was killed around 5 a.m. Thursday while inside his home that was pushed off its footings by mud from the heavy rain and slid down a bluff and onto Highway 35, which runs along the Mississippi River, the Vernon County Sheriff’s Office said.

Less than two hours later, a Burlington Northern train derailed from an apparent track washout along Highway 35 in Crawford County near Ferryville, about 25 miles north of Prairie du Chien, according to BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth.

About 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel leaked from a ruptured fuel tank from one of two locomotives that derailed and some of it reached the Mississippi River, McBeth said.

Trucks and trailers that carried heavy equipment were parked for long stretches along Highway 35 as dozens of crews from BNSF and elsewhere began rebuilding the washed out area and placed containment and absorbent booms at the site to capture spilled diesel fuel.

Five railroad cars also derailed, including two empty tank cars — one that last carried ethanol and the other that last carried vegetable oil — and three cars loaded with wallboard, McBeth said.

BNSF hoped to have tracks reopened late Friday afternoon, she said.

All along Highway 35 and in Richland, Crawford and Vernon counties, crews put snowplows back on their trucks to clear multiple mudslides — caused when saturated ground liquefies — that led to the closure of dozens of roads and one car crash involving a Richland County Sheriff’s deputy racing to a call in Viola, according to Richland County Deputy Sheriff Chad Kanable. The deputy was not injured and the car sustained just minor damage, Kanable said.

Many more roads were closed on Thursday because they were covered with flood waters and made it impossible to reach some villages and towns like Hub City, Yuba, Rockbridge and Woodstock in Richland County and Viola, located in Richland and Vernon counties, according to Pat Metz, Richland County director of Health and Human Services.

It also caused long detours. Patrick Schwingle, who was filling sandbags at the Richland Center Community Center to fill a sinkhole at the church where he works in Richland Center, said that a trucker needed two hours and 20 minutes to make the usually short drive from La Farge to Richland Center.

The Pine River was already two to three feet above flood stage in Viola and was expected to continue rising, Metz said. About 300 homes have already been affected by the flood waters, which were expected to rise to four to five feet above flood stage in Richland Center, he said. Richland Center is protected by a dike but it still could see some damage, especially due to flooded basements, he said.

This flood has the potential to create more damage in Richland Center than both the 2007 and 2008 floods if more rain covers the area over the next several days, Metz said. The 2008 flood caused an estimated $763 million in damage.

The floods in 2007 and ’08 were caused by nearly 20 inches of rain that hit the area over a short period of days, while this year’s flood has been caused by long periods of heavy rain, Metz said.

“This is the third 100-year flood I’ve had to deal with,” he said. “This time our soil is so saturated that there is no place for the water to go. It fills up faster and moves faster. If we get another five or six inches of rain, this will be really bad.”

Late Thursday, Highway 56 east of Viola, Highway 131 at Viola and Highway 80, Rockbridge to Hub City remained closed, according to the Wisconsin Emergency Operations Center.

In Vernon County, Highway 35 was closed at Highway UU near Victory, where the house slid onto the highway, as was Highway 131 at Viola and LaFarge where it meets Highway 56 and Highway 162 at Chaseburg, the Wisconsin Emergency Operations Center said.

In Crawford County, parts of Highway 131 were closed near Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, and Highway 171 was closed in and east of Gays Mills. Water also was creeping over the road on parts of Highway B where farmers were herding cattle to safety from spots isolated by flooding and dozens of acres of corn and soybeans were flattened by the floods.

Also, in Crawford and Sauk counties, state Department of Corrections inmates filled sandbags for use in flooded areas, according to the Emergency Operations Center.

Back in Gays Mills, the annual Applefest celebration scheduled for this weekend was pushed back two weeks to allow for cleanup from the flooding.

Fortunately, most Gays Mills residents have left the flood plain for homes built nearby on higher ground. But Heisz’s sister, Jessie Cooper, of Lauderdale Lake, has maintained a summer home several yards from the Kickapoo River banks.

Standing on the edge of the flooded waters, Heisz said he was told the Kickapoo was supposed to reach six feet above flood stage sometime Saturday. That would mean the entire first floor of his sister’s home will be flooded.

“We’re hoping it recedes some more before it gets worse so we can save everything that’s valuable,” he said.

The La Crosse Tribune contributed to this report.

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