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Walker Declares Statewide Emergency After Storms Ravage Communities

National Weather Service: Kickapoo River Area Of Highest Concern

Flooding in Coon Valley
The side of Highway 14 on the west side of Coon Valley, looking east into town, was washed out from flooding Monday, Aug. 27, 2018. Photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018. Hope Kirwan/WPR

Gov. Scott Walker has declared a statewide state of emergency as much of the southern half of Wisconsin grapples with widespread flooding and storm damage.

Walker issued the declaration Wednesday afternoon after declaring a state of emergency in six counties Tuesday and Dane County last week.

The statewide declaration calls for all state agencies to assist in responding to the floods, according to the Associated Press, and allows Adjutant General Don Dunbar to call any elements of the Wisconsin National Guard to active duty to assist local authorities.

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“After the latest round of continuing storms and their tremendous impact in Wisconsin, we have declared a statewide State of Emergency,” Walker said in a statement. “We are ready to provide any tools and resources necessary to impacted communities. I thank all of those who continue to work diligently to help those in need.”

The statewide declaration allows communities to more easily apply for disaster recovery and mitigation funds, and is the first step in seeking federal assistance.

At a stop Wednesday afternoon in Coon Valley — a small town in Vernon County walloped by rain with as much as a foot coming down between Monday into Tuesday — Walker encouraged residents to document flood damage in order to apply for federal assistance.

If the state receives any federal disaster aid, Walker said a portion of the money would be set aside for mitigation efforts against future flooding.

“While some areas have never been flooded before that we visited in the last week, others have repeatedly,” Walker said Wednesday. “And so we’d like to make sure that part of it goes to not only recovery but into mitigation so we can hopefully prevent flooding like that from happening again.”

On Wednesday, residents across the southern half of Wisconsin were recovering from strong storm systems that moved across the state.

More heavy rain hit southern Wisconsin on Tuesday night in areas that have seen widespread flooding, power outages and evacuations. A cold front Wednesday brought a much needed dry day for recovery efforts, but rain is forecast for the weekend.

The National Weather Service reports 2 to 4 more inches of rain fell overnight and confirmed Wednesday afternoon that at least one tornado touched down as part of the storms.

“It certainly made conditions worse and only created higher flood crests, especially along the Kickapoo River, so that’s a major factor into what’s pushing us into record flooding,” said John Wetenkamp, a meteorologist with the weather service in La Crosse. “Even outside of that, we have many streams in southwest Wisconsin that are elevated … so some flooding issues continue, even away from the Kickapoo River, across other counties surrounding that area.”

He said river conditions near Readstown, Viola and La Farge are being monitored very closely. As of 4 p.m. Meteorologist Dan Jones said it appeared the river had crested at Reedstown and the surge of floodwater was moving south through Soldiers Grove on it’s way to Gays Mills and Stueben.

“The crests are now just downstream of Soldiers Grove there but we are still looking at major flooding and possible near record crests there,” said Jones.

Around 40 residents in the Village of Readstown were evacuated Tuesday night, said village clerk Susan Mueller.

“The police department, the fire department, everybody was really well prepared. We had met together earlier (Tuesday),” Mueller said.

Mueller said several roads remained impassable Wednesday afternoon and many displaced residents are staying at the village office. She said neighbors have brought baked goods and a local Kwik Trip gas station sent food to the shelter.

“I’ve been through three floods with this town already and this flood, everybody was there. It was just really nice to see,” Mueller said. “We were ready hours before the flood hit.”

Mueller said Wednesday afternoon that the waters already started receding. Village officials are pumping the sewer to keep up with the storm water and they’re asking residents not to do laundry and refrain from using water.

According to the weather service, the Kickapoo River may have crested in La Farge at 16.5 feet, breaking the old record of 15.78 feet. The numbers are preliminary, and water is receding, according to the weather service.

Mark Smith, board president for the Village of Ontario, said residents were using plows and tractors to clear mud from the streets Wednesday after torrential rains Monday and Tuesday.

The village lost power for much of the day Tuesday and the only gas station in town ran out of fuel, Smith said.

“Every business in the village had major damage. So it’s not a good situation for us here,” Smith said.

He said many businesses also sustained major flood damage last year.

“It’s a major undertaking to get them back open again, and now you turn around and get hit again the second year in a row. It’s like, do they even want to (open again)? And that would just devastate our community,” Smith said.

Several homes were also damaged by the flooding Monday into Tuesday, which Smith said is the worst flooding event the village has seen since 1978.

Tornado Touchdown

The weather service confirmed Wednesday afternoon that an EF-1 tornado struck a farm in Fond du Lac County overnight. It touched down with peak winds estimated at 100 mph between Brandon and Waupun near Alto.

Officials were investigating damage Wednesday to determine if there was tornado activity. They were reporting possible tornado damage from southern Marquette County across Green Lake County and into Fond du Lac County.

“We know that there’s a widespread swath of damage that extends from Adams and Juneau counties all the way to Fond du Lac and Sheboygan counties, and what we’re trying to determine is what was straight line wind damage versus tornadic damage,” said Ben Miller, a meteorologist at the weather service’s Sullivan office.

Other Damage

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spokesman Jim Dick said at least two dams in Vernon County have had breaches of their auxiliary spillways, including the Jersey Valley Dam. The DNR will continue to check other dams in the area, he said, although some were unreachable Wednesday because of floodwater.

The overnight storms also left thousands of people without power. As of 8 a.m. Wednesday, WeEnergies reported multiple outages in the south-eastern part of the state affecting more than 15,000 customers. Alliant Energy is reporting about 4,500 customers without power in central and southern Wisconsin.

Wednesday morning, Alliant tweeted the Fond du Lac area was “hit hard, with many trees, poles and lines down.” Additional crews are on scene and in other affected areas, including Sheboygan, Green Lake, Dodge, Adams and Marquette counties.

Flooding also forced the company to stop gas service to affected areas in Juneau and Sauk counties, any additional flooding downstream may require further action, according to Alliant.

Alliant also tweeted the soil in some areas is “so saturated that more trees may go down and could take lines with them.

Erin Gerred with Fond du Lac County Emergency Management said the focus Wednesday is tackling downed trees, debris and damaged homes.

“We have numerous reports of road closures due to trees and power lines down. We haven’t had any reports of major flooding at this point. Most of what we’re dealing with today is trees and debris and damage to homes,” Gerred said.

Meanwhile, officials in Rock County are advising residents to prepare for heavy rain and possible flooding in the next 24 hours. A Rock County Sheriff’s Office press release Wednesday morning states the National Weather Service is predicting 1-3 inches of rain could fall in the area and make its way into the already saturated Rock River system. The county is making sandbags available.

Amtrak Trains Stalled

While some people are being evacuated from homes, about 400 Amtrak passengers were stuck on Amtrak trains in southwestern Wisconsin after the tracks were closed because of damage caused by flooding.

The two Empire Builder line trains that run from Seattle to Chicago that had been stopped since Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday evening resumed service Wednesday afternoon. One train was stalled near Portage and another near Tomah.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said Canadian Pacific, who owns the tracks, repaired the tracks and the trains were running between 18 and 22 hours behind schedule.

Magliari said Wednesday morning they didn’t evacuate the passengers because the trains were the safest place for passengers to be.

Wisconsin Department of Transportation officials are urging people to visit 511wi.gov for up-to-date road closures. Dozens of roads, including main arteries for communities, are closed or have detours because of flood damage or because they are flooded.

This latest round of storms comes on top of the torrential rains that have fallen on parts of the state during the past week, most recently the storms that blew through western and central parts of the state late Monday night and early Tuesday morning. The heavy rains caused widespread flooding in southern Wisconsin, resulting in power outages and evacuations.

This weeks storms have largely missed Madison, which is still recovering from last week’s storms and flooding. On Wednesday, the National Weather Service reported the Madison Airport recorded more than twice the normal amount of rain for August with 10.4 inches.

State Facilities Closed

Flooding is forcing Wisconsin officials to close a host of state outdoor facilities, according to The Associated Press.

The DNR announced Wednesday that the agency has closed Wildcat Mountain State Park in Vernon County and 50 percent of the Long Lake Campground in the Kettle Moraine State Forest in Fond du Lac County. Campers who had reservations for the Labor Day weekend will get full refunds.

The DNR also has closed all or portions of the 400, Badger, Elroy-Sparta and Military Ridge state trails.

The boat launch, beaches and some day-use areas at Governor Nelson State Park also have been closed.

Well Contamination Testing

Officials are advising residents on private wells in flooded areas of the state to take special precautions to avoid possible water contamination. According to the DNR website, people should not drink from a well if the casing has been submerged in flood water, or if the well is shallow and near flooded areas.

Changes to taste and color may also be indicators that the well safety has been compromised. The DNR has well disinfection and other flood cleanup information online. Dane County is offering free well testing kits until Thursday, Sept. 6 for residents affected by the recent flooding.

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:06 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018, with quotes from Gov. Scott Walker. Andrea Anderson, Bridgit Bowden, Hannah Haynes, Melissa Ingells, Hope Kirwan, Rich Kremer and John K. Wilson contributed to this report.