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Flooding Strands Residents, Cut Off Access In Northern Wisconsin

Road Repairs Will Take Weeks In Some Counties, Officials Say

Flood waters surround the Bad River reservation in 2016 after a storm dumped as much as 10 inches of rain in a single night. Courtesy of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Thursday saw police, road crews and local officials in northern Wisconsin continuing their work restoring services, repairing infrastructure and assessing damage in the wake of heavy rain Monday night that led to days of flooding. The water has yet to recede in some areas with the possibility of more rain in the forecast.

The confirmed loss of life from the flooding has risen to three people.

Major state and federal highways were still impassable on Thursday due to washouts, including sections of U.S. Highways 2, 13 and 63 in northern Wisconsin.

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Near the town of Mason in Bayfield County, resident Jack Pennanen said the damage from more than 10 inches of rain is the worst he’s seen in more than 50 years. He said the washouts on U.S. 63 near Grand View are massive.

“Probably 60 feet (from) the top of the road to the bottom,” he said. “(Twentymile Creek) took all of that out and there’s a house on North Sweden Road and it came through that and it flipped the tractor on its side. It took two of its sheds and put them on the other side of the road.”

Bayfield County Sheriff Paul Susienka said it’s important people heed road barricades where there’s washouts or standing water.

“Because there could be slight damage or there could be tremendous damage,” he said.

So far, officials have confirmed three deaths attributed to the rash of flooding. The Ashland County Sheriffs Department says 82-year-old Elmer Lippo was found dead Thursday morning in a pickup truck stuck in the floodwaters of the Marengo River near the Town of White River. The truck was found 12 feet east of the roadway near a bridge. Lippo was a member of the Marengo town board of supervisors.

This is the third death attributed to this week’s flooding in northern Wisconsin. Others include 84-year-old Delmar Johnson of Tower Lakes, Illinois and 56-year-old Mitchel Koski of Montreal, Wisconsin.

Cleanup Continues

Bayfield County highway supervisor Tom Toepfer said crews have been putting in long hours to repair what they can.

“They were out at two o’clock in the morning of the storm,” he said. “I don’t think they got done that night until seven o’clock at night … We do not have the staff to work around the clock.”

Toepfer said most county roads are expected to be open this weekend with the exceptions of county roads D and E, which had sections washed away. He said repairs on U.S. 63 and County Road E will take roughly four weeks. County Road D is still under water. He said town roads are expected to be in bad shape for a long time.

A washed-out section of County Road E in Bayfield County. Courtesy of Bayfield County

People driving north to south on U.S. 63 or east to west on U.S. 2 are forced to use long detours, taking them hours out of the way in some cases. Bayfield County tourism director Mary Motiff said it’s not what they’d like to see during their busiest season of the year. She said some businesses rely solely on income from summer tourists to make it through the rest of the year.

“If people can just take a little extra time in planning on their way here and keep their plans, it would really help our tourism business a lot,” she said.

In Ashland County, crews are putting down piles of dirt on the shoulder of roads to help keep them from eroding, including Kim Rikkola with the Ashland County Highway Department.

“We still don’t know where all the problems are yet,” Rikkola said. “There could be pipes that are failing that we haven’t inspected or anything yet. We’ve got our hands full, and it’s going to take some time to make sure everything’s up to snuff.”

Reaching Those In Need

The road closures have prevented carriers with the Ashland Post Office from delivering mail to the Bad River reservation, according to postmaster Mark Thimm.

“It’s very difficult to service some of the people, but speaking with some of the tribal members and the highway department hopefully in the next two days we’ll be able to get the majority of the community delivered.”

Wisconsin Emergency Management spokesman Tod Pritchard said some members of the Bad River tribe have been without power, food and water with sections of U.S. Highway 2 under water.

“The electric and natural gas service has been restored to all the tribal properties,” said Pritchard. “They have established an emergency route in and out of the reservation to get food and supplies in there and get people out to different appointments they need to get to.”

Only emergency vehicles are being allowed in and out of the reservation at this time. But, Pritchard said waters are receding on U.S. 2. Engineers will inspect the road before opening it to traffic, but so far there’s no timeline as to when it will be open. He added that Canadian National Railway has closed a section of track from Ashland to Glidden due to issues from the flooding.

Delayed UPS packages at the Ace Hardware in Ashland. Danielle Kaeding/WPR

At Ace Hardware in Ashland, floor manager Kayla Wilson said more people have been coming in for sump pumps to get water out of their basements since the storm.

“And I even know in my basement it was squirting out the brick wall,” she said. “Ours got up to 4 or 5 inches, but there’s people coming in saying that theirs are in feet of water.”

Gov. Scott Walker has declared a state of emergency for eight counties, including Ashland and Bayfield. Local officials are working to find relief from the state’s disaster fund. Without it, they say their budgets will be under water.

Specific details about conditions are listed by county below.

In Sawyer County:

State officials are keeping an eye on flooding in Hayward. A section of U.S. 63 in Hayward was still closed Thursday afternoon, but waters are beginning to recede.

Sawyer County officials are reporting around $365,000 in damages to roads, bridges and infrastructure.

In Douglas County:

Officials evacuated families that were stranded after a culvert broke in the town of Summit. Douglas County officials are estimating damages at roughly $602,800.

In Iron County:

The U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers are working with local officials on removing boats that were beached along the shore of Lake Superior. Crews are working on environmental concerns related to fuel from the vessels. Some boats have not been recovered. Flood waters from Oronto Creek are beginning to recede.

In Burnett County:

Local officials are estimating damages of around $375,000.

Up-to-date information on the flooding throughout the northern part of the state is available from Wisconsin Emergency Management.

Rich Kremer contributed reporting to this story.