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Wisconsin flooding along Mississippi River expected to rise to ‘major’ flood category

First responders prepare for flooding in La Crosse, cities along Mississippi River

Green Bay flooding March 2019
Green Bay’s East River flooded a residential area on March 15, 2019. Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service Green Bay

Wisconsin communities along the Mississippi River are preparing for what could be “major” flooding as soon as this weekend as the river swells to its highest flood level in decades.

Andy Boxell, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Milwaukee-Sullivan station, said communities along the river and its tributaries are already at moderate flood stages as of Thursday due to heavy rains and melting snow. But the flood levels are expected to crest over the next few days.

“We’re seeing really a number of locations along the Mississippi expected to reach major flood stage here over the next week,” Boxell said.

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Elsewhere in northern and central parts of the state, communities are seeing minor flooding, he said.

Boxell said that for much of the upper Great Lakes and northern plains, it’s been “a record snow year.”

That, plus the recent warm spells and fairly rapid snow melt, means that water is starting to work its way downstream, he said.

Boxell pointed to the city of Duluth, Minnesota as an example. As of Thursday morning, the city, which borders Superior in northwest Wisconsin, broke a record for the snowiest season. It reached about 137 total inches of snow for the season, up from about 135 inches over the 1995-1996 winter.

La Crosse city officials warned residents the river could exceed 15 feet by Friday, considered major flood stage.

Mike Kurz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service La Crosse station, said the flooding is hitting the majority of the Mississippi Basin from the Twin Cities in Minnesota south to Dubuque, Iowa.

The river is expected to reach the highest flood level in 20 years, with an increasing likelihood of it rising to a top-five flood on record, according to the National Weather Service website.

As of Thursday afternoon, more than 20 counties across Wisconsin received flood warnings. Others in northern Wisconsin were under flood advisories, signaling minor impacts in low-lying or poor-drainage areas.

Between January through March 2023, Wisconsin had its third-wettest period since 1998, according to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information.

Officials are preparing for emergency responses

State agencies are actively monitoring flooding throughout Wisconsin and are in contact with county and tribal emergency management offices, said Andrew Beckett, public information officer for Wisconsin Emergency Management, a division of the state Department of Military Affairs that coordinates statewide response efforts.

“Outside of some assistance with sandbags in La Crosse County, the state has not received any resource requests at this time from local agencies,” Beckett said Thursday afternoon.

Molly McCormick, the community risk educator for the city of La Crosse Fire Department, said the Parks and Recreation and Public Works Departments are keeping a close eye on the situation. She said officials have found preventative tools such as levees that control water flow are working well.

In a worst case scenario, first responders are on-call and ready to go, McCormick said. Several boats are available with equipment as well.

McCormick emphasized if a sign says an area is off-limits, people should stay clear.

“It only takes six inches of moving water to knock somebody off their feet. It only takes a foot of moving water to start moving vehicles,” she said. “It can get really dangerous really fast.”

How to stay safe

Boxell, the meteorologist at the Milwaukee-Sullivan station, urged people near the Mississippi River to stay alert of any evacuation notices and information from local authorities.

“The good thing with river flooding is that it’s generally fairly slow,” he said, meaning there is usually lead time for people to make preparations in advance.

The city of La Crosse advised making an emergency plan. Officials recommend having a family meeting place, to bring a list of emergency contacts, a power supply and any medications. They suggested building a “Go Kit” with nonperishable items, water, cash and medication. They also recommend moving valuables out of the basement and elevating or flood-proofing appliances as much as possible.

You can track flood updates through the National Weather Service site. The city offers tips on its website.