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Waupaca County community recovering after major dam breach

At least 37 nursing home residents continue to be displaced after sudden breach of dam on Manawa Millpond

Floodwaters surround a dam under a cloudy sky
Flood waters pass through the breached dam on Manawa Millpond on Friday, July 5, 2024. Photo courtesy of Angela Radloff

Five days after a dam in the city began to fail during a heavy downpour, Mayor Mike Frazier said the Manawa Millpond looks like a scene from sci-fi series “The Twilight Zone.”

The 180-acre lake is mostly drained after the dam on the Little Wolf River was breached Friday.

“It looks like a wasteland,” Frazier said. “It’s all black with the stumps from when they originally did the dam way back in the early 1900’s. And then of course below the dam, it’s a lot different. The actual natural channel of the river you can see really well.”

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Heavy rain on Friday morning clogged the millpond’s dam with down trees and other debris, causing water to spill over the top of the structure and erode away the earthen side.

The breach flooded Manawa’s water treatment plant, streets, homes and businesses, causing around 100 residents to be evacuated Friday.

Most have returned. But Frazier said the 37 nursing home residents at Manawa Community Living Center are still at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.

“There was water damage (at the center) and the need to repair stuff, paint and then have the state come in and do the final inspection to approve the residents to come back home,” he said.

The flood caused up to $6 million in damage in the city according to early estimates, he said.

Floodwaters pass through breached dam
Floodwaters broke through an earthen berm to the side of the dam on Manawa Millpond on Friday. Photo courtesy of Angela Radloff

Flooding takes financial toll, but community remains positive

Friday morning’s storm poured 4 inches of rain over Manawa in two hours, with the city getting nearly 6 inches in total that day. The heavy rain came after more than a month of repeated showers.

Frazier said the sudden flooding forced attendees of the Mid-Western Rodeo, the city’s biggest annual event, to evacuate Friday morning. He said people at the rodeo grounds were wading through water that was knee-deep to waist-deep in some cases. 

He estimates canceling the event caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars for both the rodeo and local organizations that use it for fundraising.

Sue Vater Olsen is director of the city’s Strum Memorial Library, which is next to the dam. She was at the library Friday morning.

“The rain came down amazingly fast, and we saw the water in the street,” she said. “We had heard of reports of cars being stuck in the roadway… and when it became evident that there was concern about the Millpond breaching the dam, we left the library.”

She said the facility did not sustain any damage except to its landscaping. The library was open on Wednesday after city engineers and the state Department of Natural Resources confirmed that further erosion near the building is unlikely. 

Vater Olsen said they’ve been answering phone calls from residents who are looking for information and have passed out clean up kits from the American Red Cross. She said overall, community members’ spirits have been positive and resilient.

“It’s been a very hectic few days, and people are feeling sentimental about the loss of the dam and the millpond,” she said. “But people have really drawn together to support each other and work out the problems one at a time.”

Frazier said the city is unsure how many people sustained flood damage to their homes, but city hall has passed out at least 60 Red Cross clean up kits in the last two days.

The plan for repairs to dam is still uncertain, Frazier said, and will depend on recommendations from state and federal agencies.

“I believe they’re going to allow us to temporarily fix the berm so come winter run off, it doesn’t collapse even more,” he said. “With all the steps necessary, it might be next summer before we actually begin repairing that whole area.”