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City officials evaluate risks
Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission logo

BOSCOBEL - A flood, a wildfire, a cyber-attack, and a rail accident. Sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster—but it’s business as usual in the world of “hazard mitigation.” That’s the process by which municipalities prepare for the worst when it comes to natural and man-made disasters, and Boscobel officials number these four threats as their top concerns.

It’s a hot topic in the city in part because officials from the Southwestern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWRPC) came to town last Wednesday to host a workshop on the subject, and in part because of the alleged mishandling of the train wreck in Ohio. (See story, page 2.)

“A train goes through Boscobel, and most of us assume that its grain going through, but there are tanker cars as well, and you just kind of wonder, what’s in those tanker cars? Do we have a right to know?” asked Brian Kendall. The fourth ward alder raised the issue for discussion and possible future action at the start of the Common Council’s February 20 public meeting.

“Are we prepared if something would happen? If it does happen, what do we do? Where do we go?” Kendall asked.

Regional coordination

It just so happens that City Administrator Patricia Smith had represented Boscobel at the SWRPC workshop and reported that the city was in the process of creating a hazard mitigation plan.

Some two dozen representatives of area municipalities attended the event, held at the Boscobel fire district headquarters. The process is overseen by Wisconsin Emergency Management and executed at both the county and municipal level, according to Ellen Tyler, Community Resiliency Planner for SWRPC.  SWRPC assists in the process.

“The public meetings will go through March, and then we’ll submit to Wisconsin Emergency Management probably at the end of April.” After a 45-day review period, each community is required to adopt it officially. The plans must be updated every five years.

At the gatherings, Tyler and her colleagues collect information from the participants: what disasters they worry about, what populations are vulnerable to their impacts, and what services they have available, including mutual aid.

SWRPC also shares information with local officials, including past trends and future predictions, as well as best practices in mitigation.

Consensus among attendees

Each participant had to name the top three potential hazards for their jurisdiction. Flooding was the clear frontrunner among the communities clustered around the Wisconsin and Kickapoo rivers. Much of the City of Boscobel lies in the 100- and 500-year floodplain.

“More and more, the 100-year floods come every couple of years, so that 500-year floodplain is that we seriously look at now,” Tyler said.

Boscobel’s most recent flood inundated half the city and damaged hundreds of structures.

Behind flooding, participants flagged high wind and tornados, which we’ve also experienced recently. Participants also identified heat, drought, and disruption of lifelines like electricity or fuel as particularly likely.

Climate change effects

With a few exceptions, virtually all the hazards can be linked to a warming planet, and nearly everyone participating in the event indicated that they expected to be managing climate-change impacts.

The meeting included both historical and projected “worst-case-scenarios” for climate-change impacts like the annual number of days above 95 degrees and the number of adverse weather events.

“Emergency Management is so much about scenarios what might happen,” Tyler explained. “So we look at what are the worst case scenarios?”

When it comes to these impacts, the Great Lakes Region, including Wisconsin, look to enjoy the best worst-case: with crop yields increasing, plenty of water, and isolated from coastal sea rise, western forest fires, and southern droughts.

But Tyler warns that we’re far from immune. “On the one hand, this looks like we’re the haven. But we’re still clearly impacted if everywhere else is doing this poorly.”

The supply-chain disruptions we experienced during the pandemic were comparatively minor, and our “haven” might become a magnet for the rest of the country.

“Something we want to talk about with people is are we prepared to welcome people, and what would that look like?” Tyler said.