Where are they now, we wondered? So, we found eight of those Gays Mills residents who were most impacted by the flood of 2007 and asked them what happened. You might be surprised by what they told us.
First, all of those we interviewed, despite their sometimes very different recovery choices, told us they were essentially happy and comfortable living where they are now. It didn’t matter if they lived in the exact same home in the exact same condition they did when the flood struck in 2007, like Jack and Darlene Williams in their Gay Street residence, or whether they opted to live in brand new home in the new development like Ron and Lorraine Fortney, they were satisfied with their choice and their living conditions.
For the Williams, the only thing that has changed in five years is that water of the nearby Kickapoo River has receded. The Williams live on Gay Street and the river is in their backyard.
“We’re exactly like we were,” Darlene Williams said. We didn’t raise our house.”
The Williams redid the house following the flood drying it and putting it back together. They were told by officials that they were not eligible to elevate the house because part of the their lot was in the floodway, a more volatile part of the larger floodplain.
“We’re very happy to be where were at right here,” Darlene said. “We like it down here. We don’t even worry about the floods. We have an excellent support group of our family and friends.”
Ron and Lorraine Fortney, who used to live about three blocks from the Williams, made a very different choice and are just as happy with it. The Fortney’s accepted a government-funded buyout of their house on Grove Street and with help from CouleeCap moved to a newly constructed house in the new development off Highway 131 in May of 2011.
“It’s just a dream come true,” Lorraine said. “Sometimes, it just doesn’t seem believable. There are real changes taking place, good changes. We’re seeing the town growing around. It feels like the 1800s.”
Then, there are those who chose to remain in their houses in the floodplain area, but had them elevated. Phyllis Drake, Blanche Gabel and Jay Haggerty on Orin Street, along with Greg and Kate Vereschagin on Park Street, feel better about living in homes that are now three feet above the level of the floodplain.
“The kids and grandkids just love coming back to Gays Mills,” Phyllis Drake said from the porch of her Orin Street home. “I’m planning on staying here. I’ve lived in Gays Mills all of my life.”
Insurance paid for the damage from both floods Phyllis explained. Denny Everson removed materials from the walls and redid them. Phyllis was never approached for buyout, she said, probably because people knew her opinion about staying.
Community Development Alternative’s Lori Bekkum assisted Phyllis in getting funding to have her house elevated and she couldn’t be happier about it.
“I trusted working with her,” Phyllis said of Bekkum. “She’s working for the people.”
For Phyllis, like some of the others, who remained in their residences after the flood it was important to remain in their homes.
“It isn’t just the house,” Phyllis explained. “It’s the memories. The walls are just covered with stuff from the kids.”
Phyllis moved into the house at the age of 18 from the farm with her mom and dad in 1941.
Just across the street and up the block, Blanche Gabel also had her house elevated and is equally pleased with the result.
“It’s elevated three feet above the basement,” Gable said confidently. She conceded it had been a lot work, but felt it was worth it. In addition to the elevation, Blanche has a new porch and new deck to enjoy.
“Basically, I’m happy here,” Blanche said. “It’s a work in progress, but one of these days it will be in Better Homes and Garden magazine.”
Like Phyllis and Blanche, Greg and Kate Vereschagin also elevated their house on Park Street and are glad they did. Kate said they used money from the flood insurance, a loan and a lot of hard work to complete the project.
“We feel safe,” Kate said. “We like it here and we’re happy we could save a 100-year-old house.”
Jay Haggerty, another Orin Street resident, has also chosen to elevate his house and like the others couldn’t be happier. He added a new steel roof and new paint.
“I love it,” Jay said. “I definitely feel safe. I don’t believe we’ll ever have another flood like that one and if we do I’ll get in my car and drive to a motel in Soldiers Grove or Boscobel.”
Jay explained that while the elevation will keep water from getting on the first floor of his house, he would be isolated in the flood water and probably without electrical power if he chose to stay during a flood.
A few other residents caught in the flood of 2007 decided to move out of town and they like the others are equally happy with their choices.
Ashley and Miguel Morga weren’t at home the night of the first flood. Each was attending a different wedding of friends. Ashley received a phone call from Miguel who returned late Sunday to find the house flooded. The Morgas revitalized the house from that flood just in time to be caught in the second flood 10 months later. They had enough at that point.
After accepting a buyout offer from the government, the Morgas found a house in Soldiers Grove “on a hill out of the floodplain,” according to Ashley.
Another couple that opted to move from the village to higher ground were Greg and Susan Jerrettt. The Jerretts wound up 10 miles out of Gays Mills on a hill above Barnum, where they located a mobile home on the property of family friends.
“We purchased the trailer as a think tank so we could figure out what to do next because we didn’t have a clear vision,” Susan explained.
As they lived on the property they have become comfortable with the country neighborhood and now look at it as home. After losing their house in Gays Mills, the trailer in the country has become “an anchor” for the couple.
Susan acknowledged there have been some issues with staying in the trailer, but noted the Haney Town Board had been very kind to them.
Then, there’s Laura Negronida, a former Gay Street resident who took a buyout on her house and has made a long circle to live on Orin Street back in the floodplain just two blocks from the site of her former house on Gay Street.
“I’ve been a lot of places,” Laura said with a smile as she recalled the last five years since the flood of 2007. “I’m back in the floodplain and I feel like I’ve come home. This is where I walked and biked on every inch of it. This is where I gardened and raised a child. I feel like I’m home.”
Laura is currently renting a room in a house on Orin Street. After leaving her Gay Street residence, Laura lived in six different places. The last place was a townhouse apartment in the new development where she lived from August 2010 until last month. She is grateful to many people who provided her places to stay or rent before she got the townhouse apartment.
While she acknowledged she had no idea how long she would stay at the Orin Street residence, she seemed happy to be back in her old neighborhood after five years elsewhere.
With the five-year anniversary approaching this weekend, we asked the residents to recall some of their most striking memories of the flood of 2007.
Laura Negronida remembered waking up from a dream about flooding that Saturday morning. In the dream, she can see the water in the nearby Kickapoo River, which in real life is a sign of reaching a certain stage of flooding.
In real life, Laura went to work at the Kickapoo Exchange Food Co-op on Main Street in Gays Mills that Saturday morning. She told customers about the dream off and on all day. In the early evening, she and her son attended a party at rural residence on Sleepy Hollow Road and saw a car almost taken away by water as the driver attempted to cross a section of rushing water on the driveway.
Back at the house on Gay Street they were unable to sleep and checked the nearby Kickapoo River around 1 a.m. It looked fine.
At one point, fireman Adam McCarn arrived to tell them to evacuate. Laura and Chris walked in water to their cars parked on Gay Street alongside the Kickapoo Locker. They drove onto Main Street and by the time they reached the Bell Building just past Mickelson’s Market the road was no longer flooded. They went to the fire department and Chris returned to town to help people evacuate. Laura sat in her car with the dog in the back and the cat in her lap. Later, she and her son drove to Madison where she stayed at his apartment for a few days.
Like the Negronidas, most of the people we interviewed spent some time in the water in the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 19. One who didn’t was Phyllis Drake.
Phyllis received a call from Ron Murphy around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday. He advised her to move her car and told her that Gays Mills was probably going to get the worst flood it had ever got. At 2 p.m., he called again and told her he was coming to get her.
“I’m lucky he did,” Phyllis said. “It saved my car and it saved me.”
Drake lived with the Murphys while the house was restored to a livable condition.
Darlene Williams remembered the water rising faster and faster. She received a call from her son Travis and he told her they needed to move their cars.
Darlene remembers packing a bag and when Travis arrived he took them back to his house on Bluebird Lane. When he returned to get back to the house to try to salvage more around 3 a.m., it was too late and he couldn’t reach the house.
Not too far away on Park Street, Greg and Kate Vereschagin were experiencing their first flood having just moved into the house in January.
Kate remembers taking the car to the fairgrounds to keep it out of the water. She and Greg also worked with some of the younger people in the neighborhood to help evacuate elderly neighbors in canoes.
Returning to her house at one point, she recalled putting her foot on the first step to the basement just as all five basement windows blew out. The basement filled with water in one second in some sort of rushing whirlpool, according to Kate. She is convinced that had she made it into the basement before the windows blew out she would have been killed.
“It was really intense,” Kate said of the moment five years ago. “It was pretty surreal and unbelievable. The whole thing was.”
The Vereschagins weren’t the only ones having adventures in the water in the early morning hours of Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007. Just down the block, the Jerretts, who had been through a few floods, made a miscalculation about how much time they had. Leaving their Gay Street residence on foot, they became trapped in heavy current and were clinging to a tree. Two teenage girls, who tried to assist them, eventually were trapped clinging to the same tree. Eventually, the group was rescued by firefighters in a boat.
Susan said that although she has repeated the story many times, she has no thoughts about it anymore.
“There are no flashbacks anymore,” Susan said. “I put it behind me.”
Greg still misses the house and admires the trees that remain in the yard of the former residence.
“I think of how grateful I am that not a soul was lost in Gays Mills that night,” Susan said. “That night all the lines between people were broken. There wasn’t any division, it was gone that day. Everybody was their brother’s keeper that day.”
Susan recalled that Karen Smith, a casual acquaintance from town until that night, gave her jacket to Susan at the fire station.
Sara a Christopherson asked the Jerretts where they were going that night. When they couldn’t answer, she told them they were coming home with her. In fact, they stayed with the Christophersons for 10 weeks.
Ron and Lorraine Fortney also had an experience in the water in the alley behind their Grove Street house. Walking in chest deep water with a cross current and with Ron carrying a nephew’s child, the couple had all they could do to make it to Kate Heisz’s house where they got in a boat for a ride to Main Street. It’s an experience Lorraine will never forget.
While Ashley Morga was out of town during the flood, she recalled coming home on Sunday and having to get into a canoe two blocks from her house to approach the residence.
“That’s when I first began to fathom how serious it was,” Ashley said.
While the flood may be five years old this weekend, for many who lived through it it’s as real as if it happened yesterday. For most, it has changed the housing they live in and for many the memoires of that night in the water will be a constant for the rest of their lives.