You just had this feeling it was coming. You weren’t sure when, but all the signs were there—the ground was saturated and the backwaters were filled by a rainy summer that only accelerated in August and September.
With that setting, it would only take a trigger event, like a long, large rainfall or some flash flooding. There were some false starts. It came close to flooding on Friday, Sept. 16. The river in Gays Mills came out of its banks and got onto Main Street, but by Saturday, Sept. 17, it had stopped raining and the river retreated some.
This week our collective luck, which had held all summer, finally gave out. It started with some early morning rain on Wednesday, Sept. 21.
The storms had heavy rainfall rates of 1-3 inches per hour and repeated over the same locations in some areas, the National Weather Service would report later. Rainfall totals of 3-7 inches were reported across the entire area from Tuesday night through Friday morning. However, there were some localized much higher amounts of 9-11 inches.
While 3-7 inches of rain can cause flooding, the unusual amount of rain that fell over the past month created very wet soils and amplified the flooding, according to the National Weather Service. This water loading of the soils caused an unusually high number of mudslides. A high percentage of the rain that fell ran across the surface instead of soaking in, causing flooding on every river in the area. Damage to infrastructure, crops, homes and businesses was widespread.
It started raining hard again Wednesday night. At 12:50 a.m. on Thursday, the first flash flood warnings to local residents were made by phone. Shortly after that, the Crawford County Highway Department mobilized its personnel as large amounts of rain were taking a toll the infrastructure-particularly hard hit were the bridges and roadways. Mudslides and rockslides coming off the steep hillsides shut off everything from smaller township roads to important county highways to major state and federal highways.
Highway 35 going north to DeSoto was closed because of slides near Victory. One of which brought done a hilltop house, killing its occupant in the process. Another man would die near Viroqua later that morning when his stock trailer jackknifed trapping his truck in six feet of water and eventually drowning him.
A rural Soldiers Grove resident was trapped in a car near the intersection of Johnstown Road and County B less than a mile from her home, when floodwaters swept the car off the roadway and into a cornfield at 3:15 a.m. Luckily, the fast reaction of first responders and a firefighter trained in swift water rescue saved her just after 5 a.m.
With things getting worse as dawn approached on Thursday, another round of flash flood warnings were issued at 6:52 a.m.
By 7:57 a.m., a message from the County’s Code Red Emergency Service advised of road closures on Highway 35 at DeSoto, on Highway 131 at Soldiers Grove and Highway 171 at Gays Mills.
The closure of the orchard hill on Highway 171 on the eve of the Gays Mills Apple Festival was the most alarming and remains one the more vexing problems. The hillside between the two waysides on the hill gave way. It created a steep deep drop adjoining the westbound lane of 171. This short stretch of highway remains only one lane and was not re-opened until Saturday to local traffic.
There were also closures of County B and County C largely due to bridge problems and some cases slides or washouts.
The hardest hit areas appeared to be in the northern part of the county, where both Tainter Creek and Rush Creek erupted into flash flooding.
A wall of water appeared to have moved through Rush Creek at about 1 a.m., where it eventually smashed through a dike formed by Rush Creek Road and raced toward the Mississippi River. At Highway 35, the water from Rush Creek surged over the roadway at depths of as much as two-feet, according to those who were there to witness it.
A southbound Burlington Northern and Santa Fe train derailed at 5:40 a.m. Thursday as it crossed a bridge over Rush Creek on its corridor that runs between 35 and the Mississippi. The surge of water from Rush Creek had washed out the area below the tracks as they approached that bridge, resulting in the derailment.
It was a different kind of flood for Gays Mills residents though. While the flash floods, had caused lots of damage to the infrastructure out in the country, the sheer depth of water in the village was less than the floods of 2007 and 2008. How much less? Jim Chellevold, owner of the Kickapoo Locker, reported that on his cutting room floor the depth got to about four inches this time. It was around two-feet deep in the flood of 2008.
Other residents speculated that the flood’s crests were spread over a long period of time so it never got as deep.
Gays Mills Village President Harry Heisz agreed. He noted the first crest from the flash flooding on County B hit the village on Thursday and crested at 17’6” to 18’ and from there the water receded. A second crest from the flooding upstream at Readstown and in Vernon County occurred at 3 p.m. when the river reached 18’10”.
So, even at its highest on Saturday, the Kickapoo River in Gays Mills was still 18 inches lower than the record crest of 20’4” in June of 2008.
It might have been less deep in the villages, but the bridge on Main Street in Gays Mills was still closed until Monday.
By Thursday afternoon, the decision to reschedule the Apple Festival was made. It will be held October 7, 8 and 9.
Many of the damaged bridges were quickly, if temporarily, repaired, by the hard-working county highway department.
There was plenty of praise not only for the highway department, but also for the fire departments, EMS personnel, sheriff’s deputies, township workers and hundreds of citizen volunteers.
An organized effort of firefighters and volunteers at the Kickapoo Locker moved meat out of harm’s way in the second floor freezer area saved any of it from being lost. Citizen volunteers also joined firefighters in moving the contents of J&J’s on Main to safer locations.
Everywhere the fire departments were offering assistance. In Gays Mills, fire department members and citizen volunteers also moved the U.S. Post Office to drier quarters in an empty space at the Mercantile Center. The post office remained relocated as the week began.
It seemed everyone from Harry Heisz to Crawford County Sheriff Dale McCullick to Governor Scott Walker to Congressman Ron Kind and State Senator Jennifer Shilling had high praise for the work of the many local people who helped their fellow community members in times of need during the flood.
Local utilities also experienced problems with rural areas of Scenic Rivers Electric Co-op losing power on Thursday. Parts of the Village of Ferryville, served by Alliant Energy, also lost power on Thursday.
There was also some, yet to be calculated, loss to area agriculture producers, as yet to be harvested soybean and corn crops in low lying areas were most certainly lost. Cattle and other livestock were also forced to struggle with the rising waters, some stock was lost, most was stressed and some are yet to be found.
Although some crops in valley locations were total losses, many other crops seemed to weather the storm. Local agricultural officials, like Crawford County Ag Agent Vance Haugen and Crawford County USDA Executive Director John Baird, thought the final numbers for losses caused by the flooding might be a lot lower than people think.
Haugen estimated crop damage from the flood may be 10 to 15 percent. Baird thought the crop damage could be as low five percent. Both officials cautioned it was too early to have any firm numbers and they were offering only rough estimates.
“It’s a mess,” was a statement repeated many times as local residents ventured out to inspect the damage this weekend.