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Repeated flooding takes a toll on people
ristow bridgea
THE FOOTINGS for the Ristows bridge over Tainter Creek washed away in the 2007 flood. This ladder was the only way in and out of the farm for the following three months.

CRAWFORD COUNTY - Flooding is something that impacts every county resident in a variety of ways. There are the logistical and financial impacts, as well as the psychological and emotional impacts.

People are afraid. They worry about their loved ones, and motorists don’t know where to drive and commutes to work can become unbelievably long. Public safety and emergency workers start working around the clock, hoping they don’t have to perform any heroic rescues. Businesses experience disruptions with transportation and people that can’t make it to work. Sometimes local residents can face enormous bills for clean up and repair that can be overwhelming.

And then, when it keeps happening, year-after-year, there can be exhaustion and anxiety when it starts to rain. You start to “get a feeling” it’s going to happen again. You might have barely finished cleaning up from the last flood.

There’s no question that the experience and aftermath of increasingly frequent and severe flooding is taking a toll. Flooding is an ongoing problem that serves to decrease the mental and emotional well-being of the community.

Not all floods the same

Not all floods are the same, and they impact different county residents in different ways. Big old floods, such as the one we are recovering from now, start on the Kickapoo River, often up in the headwaters around Ontario, work their way down the river, community-by-community.

They approach like a lumbering behemoth. Their progress is big, wet, muddy, slow and sure. Often people and businesses have some time to prepare.

Then, there are flash floods. These are sudden, fast, catastrophic and very dangerous. You may or may not see them coming. You may or may not have time to prepare. You may have to flee for your life to high ground and safety.

Mudslides can also be very dangerous part of flash floods, if a hillside or a boulder comes down on top of you. One Vernon County resident lost his life in the 2016 floods when a hillside of mud let loose and inundated his home.

The Tainter Creek Watershed is primarily rural, with steep hillsides and narrow valleys, surrounded on the top by open ridgeland areas. The floods best known on Tainter Creek and its tributaries are of the flash flood variety.

Bruce and Sue Ristow, Jane Keeley, Beau and Kim Blaha, and Richard Smith are four of the countless residents of the Tainter Creek Watershed who have experienced first hand the troubles in the flash floods.

Exhaustion and fear

Bruce and Sue Ristow of rural Soldiers Grove are area residents that look up at the sky when it rains, and wonder and worry. On Thursday, July 20, 2017, Bruce Ristow had been up since 3 a.m. watching the weather, moving the vehicles to the other side of their bridge across Tainter Creek, making sure the cattle were on high ground.

Bruce and Sue Ristow, live and farm on the east side of Tainter Creek, along County B. The Ristows produce grassfed beef and raise Brittany Spaniels in their semi-retirement.

The Ristows have cleaned up repeatedly after flooding in recent years, and made expensive repairs to their bridge, driveway, and fences. They are exhausted, and Bruce Ristow will freely tell you he has developed ‘PTFS’ – Post-Traumatic-Flood Syndrome.

“Just a few weeks ago,” Ristow said, patting his chest, “I had suction cups here and am developing heart problems.” He has suffered problems with his hands from all the work of repairing his fences and cleaning up the muddy debris deposited on their bridge by floodwaters.

“The 2016 flood was the one that broke me,” Ristow said. “I still haven’t resolved all the issues with our fencing from that flood.”

Bruce and Sue have been Water Action Volunteers since 2010, monitoring Tainter Creek on their farm. They work with Valley Stewardship Network (VSN) in Viroqua. When the Tainter Creek Watershed Council was getting started, VSN called and asked if they would be willing to be a part of it. Bruce has been to three of the five meetings, and plans to go to the August meeting.

The next meeting of the group will take place on Monday, August 7 at 7:30 p.m., at the Franklin Town Hall in Liberty Pole.

Fleeing to high ground

Everyone who is a parent knows that your life changes forever when you have children. Suddenly, you have responsibility for other lives. You love them, and will do anything to protect them.

Beau and Kim Blaha, and their children, Deyton, now 13; Landen, 9; and Owan, 7 bought a home in 2005 in Star Valley. Motorists passing by could see the children at play in the yard with the dogs, and their chickens happily pecking away.

When the 2007 flash flood waters struck in Star Valley, the Blahas had just minutes to get across the street and up the hill to their neighbors, the Rayners. Their oldest child, Deyton, was a baby at the time.

As they were evacuating, with water up to the doors of their Jeep, they saw an empty vehicle owned by another resident float by. In mere minutes, the water had continued to rise over the hood of their vehicle.

“If we’d delayed another two minutes, our car would have been floating away as well,” Blaha said. “I had been up all night watching and worrying, but it hadn’t gotten this bad before and it was truly shocking when it happened so suddenly. The sound of the water in the dark was like sitting under a dam.”

The Blahas cleaned up, and carried on. But in 2016, they hit the wall. Blaha was again up all night, worrying about the safety of his loved ones, and about their home.

“When the puddles in the back yard started to get muddy, I knew it was time to get out. That’s a sign it’s about to get bad.”

 At 1 a.m., he and his wife woke the kids, told them they had only time to take the clothes on their backs, loaded them in their two vehicles, and began a harrowing drive to safety in Soldiers Grove, traveling on County C.

“A drive that would normally take 10 minutes took an hour,” Blaha recalled. “We got up over Pine Knob, and when we were going down, there started to be lots of mudslides. When we got around the curve after River Road, we had to stop several times to remove boulders from the road. Once we made it across the last bridge going into Soldiers Grove, I finally knew my family would be safe. It was very frightening – if we had taken the wrong road, or been in the wrong place at the wrong time, it might have turned out differently,” Blaha recounted.

“It used to just rain, now we get monsoons,” Blaha said. “In 2007, all the water we were dealing with was coming from Tainter. In 2016, we also got all that water coming down Latham Road from Conway Creek. That’s what put it over the top. It joined with the water from Tainter Creek, and created a whirlpool. It was odd. It picked up all the heavy stuff and moved it, but left all the light stuff,” Blaha recalled.

The Blahas lost their home and all their possessions that night in 2016, but saved the most important thing – each other. Now they live in Soldiers Grove. They have had ongoing problems with the home in Star Valley, and the property recently went into foreclosure.

There were five homes that were severely damaged in the 2016 flood. Four of them were bought out, but the Blahas both work hard at steady jobs, and their income was too high for them to qualify for the buyout.

“We held on as long as we could, but we just can’t afford two house payments. The bank was very understanding because they understood our circumstances. We were hoping that there might be some dollars somewhere in the recovery funds that might come through to help us deal with the situation, but we basically just ran out of time,” Blaha said.

The Blahas live on high, dry ground in Soldiers Grove now.

“It’s a huge relief,” Blaha said. “I don’t lay awake anymore when there are storms. I can get a good night’s sleep. But I still worry about others who might be in harms way – I know what it’s like.”

Blaha expressed appreciation for the support their family had received from the community and his fellow employees at S&S Cycles.

“The generosity of the community and my co-workers in organizing benefit events for our family really helped us, financially and emotionally,” Blaha shared. “When we evacuated, we had nothing.”

Flash flood flashbacks

Jane Keeley left her home on Johnstown Road, and turned onto County B at 3 a.m. in the 2016 flood. She was leaving for the airport to go on vacation.

Almost immediately, in the dark, the front of her car encountered water over the road.

“I quickly tried to back up, but by then it was too late and my car was swept away,” Keeley recalled. “It finally came to a stop, and then I got on my cell phone and called 911. The emergency workers were great. They immediately dispatched the emergency, and stayed on the phone with me.”

“It wasn’t too long, and I saw that my car was beginning to fill up with water. I was already frightened, but then I became terrified,” Keeley remembered. “I climbed out onto the roof of my car through the sunroof. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me.”

Soldiers Grove Fire Chief Ben Clason was working with his team to clear out campers from the park in the village when the call came in.

“I was torn because I knew my team needed me in the village, but my training in swiftwater rescue dictated that I was the best person to respond to the call,” Clason recalled.

Clason’s rescue of Keeley was complicated by the fact that Keeley’s location was cut off from almost all approaches by the flash floodwaters raging down Tainter Creek.

This is a common problem for emergency workers in these situations, and they have to be careful that in responding they don’t also put themselves in harms way. Driving to the scene, emergency workers encounter rapidly changing, hazardous conditions.

Clason was forced to drive around the area on high ground on Highway 27. He was able to enter Keeley’s area from Mt. Sterling. The whole time he was driving, he knew that having to travel the extra distance was delaying his response to the crisis.

Cody Sidie, a member of the Gays Mills Volunteer Fire Department, lives on Davig Ridge. Sidie enlisted his neighbor, Gabe Rayner from Star Valley to help him respond to the emergency. The two were unable to travel on County B, but were still able to get a cross Conway Creek on County C and go over the top, down Helgerson Hill and then down Johnstown Road.

“When we got there, it was pretty crazy,” Rayner recalled. “We parked about 500 feet back, and the water was really deep. Cody and I, and another guy, worked with Ben and were holding the rope for him. Then he decided to let the rope go and swim for it, and all we could do is watch.”

At one point in recounting her story, Keeley burst into tears.

“I don’t dwell on what happened, but when I start to think about it, then suddenly, I’m right back there, in that car,” Keeley said.

When minutes count

Richard Smith has owned his farm on Pine Knob Road since 1982. Smith has worked long years in Chicago, and his dream is to retire on his Utica Township farm. As he approaches retirement, Smith has experienced some health problems, like so many citizens of retirement age.

Just before the 2016 flood, Smith had undergone surgery, and was convalescing with a care worker. His recovery was not going as smoothly as hoped, and when the flash flood started shaping up, his careworker determined that he needed to be evacuated and go back to the hospital.

The waters of the sleepy little spring-fed creek flowing through Smith’s yard had turned into a raging torrent, and water had filled the yard. Smith and his careworker were forced to lay boards across the water to reach the car, which had been moved to higher ground across the bridge.

Smith was fortunate to have a caregiver to help him to safety. As with Keeley’s predicament, it would potentially have been difficult for emergency workers to reach Smith’s location at that time.

Older citizens, people with health problems, and emergency situations such as a house fire or a health emergency are difficult to respond to in flooding situations. Time is often of the essence, and when emergency workers are forced to drive long distances to safely respond, the extra drive time burns precious minutes.

Smith is another resident that is exhausted with repeated clean up and recovery efforts. He recently was reluctantly forced to remove the beautiful old stone bridge across the creek. The bridge served to constrict and spread the floodwaters, and the culverts would become clogged with debris from upstream.

 Smith has replaced the bridge with 5-foot culverts designed to effectively move the water downstream to protect his yard, buildings and pastures, and ensure an escape route in flooding situations.

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