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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Knapp Creek overflowed State Highway 60 in Richland County eroding and scouring out the highway and embankment. © Wisconsin Department of Transportation
Knapp Creek overflowed State Highway 60 in Richland County eroding and scouring out the highway and embankment.

© Wisconsin Department of Transportation

December 2007

The hell of high water

Responding to emergencies is an unseen service until disaster strikes.

Kristin N. Turner, Natasha Kassulke, David L. Sperling


ICS: Uniform training to provide uniform help nationwide
How DNR's structure brings quicker response
Actions that keep disasters from becoming catastrophes
One warden's wet week
Keeping the taps clean and the toilets flushing where water was everywhere
Dam busy holding back water
The big ones

Natural disasters each inflict their own devastating pain. Blizzards bring blinding snow, bitter cold and bad driving. Fires scorch the landscape and can burn out homes and communities in a heartbeat. Tornadoes and downbursts barrel through small areas with unbelievable ferocity and destruction. But those are the quick ones. Flooding and drought are usually as much psychological battles as physical loss. Flash floods can wash out hillsides and ravines in an instant, raise rivers and overwhelm dams. Or continual rain can slowly seep into low-lying areas as saturated soils mix with surface water and rising groundwater to bubble into basements. They do their agonizing work hour upon hour and day upon unending day. They test our endurance, cause sleepless nights and lots of silent prayers.

For residents of both southern and northern Wisconsin, last summer's odd weather seemed like a continual test of biblical proportions – sustained drought that parched the north, and unending rains that soaked and swamped the southwest and southern counties. Though we suffer individual loss, these emergencies tend to pull neighbors and communities together, first to stave off the onslaught, then to recover from collective loss. And more often than not, people show their best when conditions are their worst. So too with the various government agencies that plan for disaster. Their day-to-day work involves mundane tasks like surveying elevations, engineering berms, inspecting roadways, erecting communication towers and simulating emergency exercises, but when disaster strikes, they muster their forces to provide services when citizens need them most. They can do it efficiently because they plan for those horrible moments.

The nerve center for disaster relief looked different last August. But today, Diane Kleiboer, disaster resources section supervisor for Wisconsin Emergency Management, finds Room 102 of the Military Affairs building on Madison's east side deserted. Quiet.

During a tour, she explains that on the weekend of August 18, this room, the Emergency Operations Center, was filled and bustling with staff from Wisconsin Emergency Management, the Governor's Office and every state agency, typing at computer stations, talking on cell phones and land lines – sometimes at the same time – watching TV news, listening to radios, sharing strategies in and out of conference rooms, and reviewing floodplain maps.

"The phones were ringing off the hook and things were going at a feverish pitch," Kleiboer recalls, pointing to remnant maps on the walls showing road closures, agrichemical sites and flooding from that wild weekend. A Department of Transportation webcam is still running displaying an uneventful stream of traffic. Hanging projectors are set to display PowerPoint presentations during the next disaster. Fax machines, phone banks and a conference room stand ready, too. Other communications equipment includes the National Warning System that shares alerts of severe weather.

And, near the door, the always important coffeemaker and refrigerator.

"During a disaster response, the adrenaline gets going and we need plenty of coffee," she says. Then the center is staffed 24/7 for days. It's hectic at times, but Kleiboer smiles and says she loves her job because she knows that she is there when people need her the most.

Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM) specializes in hazard mitigation, warning and communications, coordinating emergency police services, emergency fire services, disaster response and recovery, hazardous materials, radiological (nuclear) emergency preparedness and training.

Kleiboer has worked for WEM for 32 years and has seen it all, from the severe floods in southwest Wisconsin this summer to the Stoughton tornado of 2005. Wisconsin is vulnerable to a variety of disasters. On average, the state experiences 21 tornado touchdowns a year. According to WEM, disaster-related damages in Wisconsin totaled nearly $3 billion in the last three decades.

Kleiboer's office one floor above the Emergency Operations Center is filled with three-ring binders with labels like "State of Wisconsin Hazard Mitigation Plan," and filing cabinets containing decades of disaster situation reports.

Her list of contacts is extensive. In a disaster, WEM musters help from Military Affairs, Department of Transportation and State Patrol, Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Corrections, Department of Workforce Development, Public Service Commission, UW-Extension, and Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection: all aimed at supporting local governments and local communities in need.

Kleiboer says state response planning is often shaped by national events. In the 1950s the emphasis was on the Cold War followed by nuclear power in the 1970s, the Bhopal gas leak disaster in India in the 1980s, and more recently, September 11, 2001.

For instance, a national program dubbed "BioWatch" reacted to the anthrax mailings of 2001 to increase awareness and surveillance for airborne biological pathogens. The federal Department of Homeland Security set up partnerships with state, local and tribal environmental and health agencies to maintain a nationwide system of air monitors to routinely sample the air near urban areas for the presence and spread of biological agents. The BioWatch system provides early warning to trained first-responder teams nationwide who can react quickly in the event of a mass pathogen release. The program also provides training to local health departments and stockpiles reserves of millions of doses of life-saving medicines if people are exposed to biological or chemical threats.

Following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, Governor Doyle ordered the state to review its emergency plans. In an October 2005 report, "Review of Wisconsin's Emergency Preparedness Plans," the state reported that most cities and counties in Wisconsin were prepared to respond to small, typical disasters but were not prepared to respond to a large scale catastrophic event.

Since then, emergency officials have worked to identify evacuation routes, mass transportation options and shelters, and have addressed special population needs.

Kleiboer says part of the program's success in handling the August floods was a training program that provided first responders, volunteers, elected officials, emergency managers and others the skills and contact information they need in an emergency response.

"It's important to have partnerships and trust in place before a disaster strikes," Kleiboer says.

In the event of a real emergency, response and rescue begins at a local level.

A mudslide south of La Crosse pushed this house off its foundation and onto State Highway 35. © Allan Johnson
A mudslide south of La Crosse pushed this house off its foundation and onto State Highway 35.

© Allan Johnson

"Local response starts right away, and we move fast after a disaster, but don't expect the state emergency system can be there [immediately]," Kleiboer says. "You and your family have to be able to support yourselves for 72 hours. But Wisconsin can be proud. We see a lot of citizens helping citizens." State disaster services train local responders and partner with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD) who are often on-scene to support emergency responders. These groups, including the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, humane societies, civic and faith-based groups, often come into a community post-disaster to handle donations and organize volunteers.

Once the community, town or county is able to step in, an Emergency Operations Center is established locally as a central location for briefings and to share information.

Kleiboer recalls that on August 18 the WEM duty officer started getting calls from the southwest part of the state about flooding and the calls picked up into the night. The senior WEM duty officer was called in by 4 a.m. and that morning the Emergency Operations Center in Madison was activated.

"We knew this storm event had escalated to a severe situation and we called in our key agencies," Kleiboer says. "The Department of Corrections had incredible resources – equipment and inmates to help do the work that needed to get done." Health and Family Services offered well testing kits, tetanus shots and mental health counseling. Transportation assisted in road closings. DNR was monitoring dam safety, municipal drinking water supplies and wastewater treatment systems.

Response happened quickly. Communities are required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to assess and compile damage reports within 24 hours of a disaster. In addition to summarizing emergency care, these reports estimate how many homes were destroyed or damaged along with an estimated dollar value of damage and amount covered by insurance. The same information is tallied to provide a picture of losses to business, agriculture and public works such as road systems and public utilities.

The Emergency Operations Center brings state agencies together. WEM uses computer software to post all significant events to a site that keeps first responders and state agencies apprised. Public affairs staff compile and send situation reports to legislators, congressional delegates, state agency secretaries and the Governor's Office. Regional WEM directors are sent into the field to assist the counties in identifying resources needed to accomplish critical missions.

"Every agency has a critical role," Kleiboer says. "Local communities know that in a disaster the state will come in to support them, but we don't take over. We are there to meet their needs but not to step on their feet."

By Sunday, August 19, FEMA representatives from the regional office in Chicago were on site assessing damage to begin providing public and individual assistance. Within days a disaster declaration led to quickly opening field offices to handle emergency claims. If homes located in a floodway are damaged 50 percent or more of their equalized values, the property deeds subsequently carry restrictions to prevent future rebuilding on those sites. The local government then receives mitigation funds to buy out the homeowners (75 percent federal funds, 25 percent state and local funds).

ICS: Uniform training to provide uniform help nationwide
Though each disaster has unique conditions, each has common needs as well: the community needs to quickly bring together trained people and equipment to handle the emergency. They also need backup staff in case an emergency can't be contained quickly. And responders need to stay in touch with each other to know who is doing what and where.

The Incident Command System was designed to provide a uniform structure and model for responding to emergencies locally, statewide, regionally and nationally. Titles and job responsibilities are defined in the same way so a person responding to an emergency knows what is expected when assigned to "Command," "Operations," "Finance," "Logistics" or "Public Information." Through a series of uniform training courses, practice and practical experience, emergency personnel learn how to coordinate their assistance to respond more quickly and efficiently when disasters strike. Since the same system is employed nationwide, trained personnel can provide backup help as emergencies continue. Typically several shifts of workers are needed for at least several days to respond to emergencies and help communities recover.

Uniform training also allows those dealing with disaster to pull help from a wider pool of responders. Whether the issue is big forest fires, floods or hazardous spills, people trained and practiced in the Incident Command System can be brought in until the issue is resolved to the point where communities move from "responding" to "recovering" from an emergency.

Hazard mitigation is important to WEM's mission. Buying properties, engineering solutions and zoning reduce the likelihood of serious impacts in the future. Another lesson for homeowners is to get flood insurance if they live in a floodplain. While many homeowner policies cover wind damage, most people lack flood insurance that can prevent their physical losses from becoming personal financial disasters as well.

How DNR's structure brings quicker response

Natural resource emergencies really show the advantages of having a mix of biologists, foresters, environmental specialists and law enforcement personnel in one agency. At least 1,200 DNR personnel are potential first responders, including spills coordinators, drinking water engineers, wastewater engineers, hazardous waste management specialists, air management engineers, conservation wardens, foresters for fire suppression, dam safety engineers, parks crews, fisheries crews and wildlife management operations crews.

Each of DNR's five regions has a spill coordinator, backup and additional staff who are cross-trained to respond to spills on land or water, and those released to the air. The spill teams train with local hazardous materials (hazmat) teams, firefighters, police and their contractors to quickly contain and recover spilled materials.

Other DNR programs also incorporate emergency response duties in their daily work.

Hazardous waste specialists are often called upon to help during transportation accidents where fuels and chemicals are spilled. They advise local responders on where to contract with cleanup crews and businesses with environmental monitoring experience. They advise communities how hazardous residues need to be safely collected and recycled or disposed of. They pull expertise from the solid waste management program about disposing of debris or animal carcasses during natural disasters or spills.

Dam safety engineers inspect the integrity of larger dams and recommend security steps to protect them. They routinely work with local government and private dam owners to keep dams in working order and work with zoning offices to limit development in floodways and floodplains.

Drinking water engineers set standards for locating wells and protecting water supplies from potential flooding and contamination. They also help train plant operators to secure their systems from potential acts of terrorism. Wastewater engineers similarly help communities maintain healthy treatment systems and secure sanitation facilities from potential threats of terrorism.

Air management staff monitor air for toxicants and potential biological weapons. They also quickly establish air sampling around spill sites and fires to check for unhealthy levels of emissions.

DNR's law enforcement conservation wardens and support staff have personnel statewide who have vehicles and communication equipment that locals regularly draw upon during emergencies. David O. Woodbury, emergency response and policy coordinator, oversees the Department of Natural Resources' response to both natural and man-made disasters. The wardens, among the first responders to spills, provide security during disasters, get involved in search-and-rescue missions and are partners with local law enforcement teams responding to emergencies. DNR law enforcement maintains a 24/7 system of duty officers who are trained and prepared to deploy staff and equipment at any time.

More than 220 foresters statewide are trained to suppress forest fires and assist local governments responding to emergencies. The forestry program maintains nine Incident Management Teams whose organizational skills, honed by decades of forest fire fighting, are drawn upon to help coordinate emergency and disaster response. The IMTs have assisted in fighting western fires, tornadoes statewide and Hurricane Katrina recovery.

The state parks program has 150 credentialed officers and 300 seasonal officers statewide who assist in search-and-rescue missions and, like the foresters, have staff skilled in operating earth-moving equipment, tractors and boats needed for emergency response.

Fisheries and wildlife management crews are called upon for search-and-rescue work, clearing debris from waters, and responding to disasters affecting wild animals and fish, including disease outbreaks.

Actions that keep disasters from becoming catastrophes

Here are some of the specific actions taken by DNR staff in responding to summer flooding last August:

Conservation wardens used their boats to help rescue people from their homes where floodwaters were quickly rising. They also helped evacuate a local radio station that was staying on the air to share emergency communications with their community. Wardens patrolled bridges and highways as torrents of cascading water compromised their safety. As waters receded, the warden force was there helping assess damage to homes and businesses.

The warden force's excellent communications network provided a mobile command post to keep local, county and state units of government in touch during emergency response.

One warden's wet week
Vernon County Conservation Warden Shawna Stringham knows firsthand the trauma people experienced during summer flooding in southwest Wisconsin.

Warden Stringham spent the night of August 17 patrolling the county with a Vernon County deputy. It was raining and they were warning campers to move to higher ground. Stringham says when she finally got home about 3 a.m., her phone rang. This time, the flooding had become severe and she was needed to help rescue people trapped on a bus in Chaseburg.

Stringham got her boat and hip waders and went to work.

On Highway 35 she saw a home that came down in a mudslide – while a woman was sleeping inside. Bridges were washed out. A train derailed. The rain kept coming. It was dark. Because the roads were closed one family couldn't get to the hospital; their baby was born in the Stoddard Fire Department that night.

DNR Conservation Wardens Shawna Stringham and Mike Cross have experience responding to emergencies in rough weather. © Burt Walters
DNR Conservation Wardens Shawna Stringham and Mike Cross have experience responding to emergencies in rough weather.

© Burt Walters
"The rescues that night were joint attempts by the Stoddard Fire Department, the Vernon County Sheriff's Department and local people who came out to bring us coffee," Stringham recalls. Besides boats, rescuers used ATVs and four-wheel-drive utility vehicles to gain access to homes and vehicles that were unreachable by truck or car.

"We put in a lot of hours and some of our homes were flooded or without electricity, but we couldn't go home knowing that we were dealing with people who had no food, who lost their homes and who had nothing left," Stringham recalls. "The whole county was in turmoil and everybody was busy."

In the hours and days that followed disaster, the crowds came – gawkers and media. Stringham's role shifted to managing crowds, traffic and maintaining security at dam sites. Working with the Viroqua Fire Department she cleaned inlet tubes that were full of storm debris to relieve pressure on area dikes.

Stringham says she is thankful for the incident command training she had received on the job and for the resources she has to share – a boat, a truck, a radio for communications. She appreciated the calls from other wardens around the state offering help.

"A lot of people have cell phones today, but those don't always work in an emergency situation," she says. "And that is what we [DNR] can offer – some of the tools that other people or agencies may not have."

The disaster made her even more proud to be working in the area.

"It was bittersweet because you see the turmoil, but you also see the way the community comes together," Stringham says. "I was just a piece of the puzzle that week."

Keeping the taps clean and the toilets flushing where water was everywhere

DNR water supply engineers were busy, too. "Our program's main duty that week was providing advice to those concerned that their private wells were contaminated," said Steve Ales, leader of DNR's South Central Region Drinking and Groundwater Team. "Most of the on-ground work in our area was being done by county and state health departments. DNR was giving guidance on how to chlorinate wells after flooding occurs to restore safe drinking water. Our strict well codes that require raised well heads, secure caps, well seals and 60 feet of grouted casing kept a lot of people's drinking water secure, even though some of these wells were under water for a while," Ales noted.

That theme was repeated for the municipal wells in the region. Richland County has six municipal water supplies and Crawford County has eight, said Del Maag, DNR municipal drinking water engineer for DNR's South Central Region. Two systems – in Gays Mills and Soldiers Grove – were affected by flooding, but the water systems and pressure were never lost in either community during high water. "None of the other municipal water supplies in those two counties were adversely affected," Maag noted, "which says a lot for the work we have been doing with all those communities over the years to move their water supplies out of the floodway and protect them from contamination."

The only municipal well in Gays Mills is outside of the floodway, Maag said. "In 1987, we required the community to move its well because the old well was in the heart of the downtown area and had flooded more than once. The operators sampled the new well regularly, and the new system on higher ground remained bacteriologically safe during August's floods."

It's a similar story in Soldiers Grove, Maag said. They had two wells and the old one, drilled in 1942, was right in the floodway of the Kickapoo River. After several flooding events, DNR advised the village to raise the well casing above the 100-year flood level or abandon it and drill a new well outside of the floodway. It's interesting that during the recent flooding the old well was surrounded by water, including water in the pump house, but the water never rose high enough to overtop the well, Maag said. Extending the well casing around that old well definitely saved the water system from contamination and having that second well outside of the flood zone was a definite plus. None of the water mains broke and the system remained pressurized during the flooding. Since the water was continuously chlorinated, this also provided a safeguard, Maag explained.

"A number of lines of defense in state drinking water and groundwater programs are designed to ensure that community wells are constructed and maintained so they are not subject to flooding," said Larry Schaefer, drinking water and groundwater team supervisor for DNR's West Central Region. Community well plans are reviewed to verify that well pump houses are at least two feet above recorded flood elevations. Well casings have to extend several feet above the floor for added protection. "We're mindful of this when wells and pumps are proposed in the floodplain. They can't be placed in the floodway where past flooding has occurred. Backup (redundant) power supplies provide two means of powering wells and these are often further backed up by a mechanical drive off a standby engine in the event of power loss. During this wet weather, our inspectors were in touch with all communities subject to flooding and onsite visits followed to see how those systems fared," Schaefer said.

Preventive work in moving and improving wastewater plants in flood-prone communities also paid off big time during the summer emergency. Julia Stephenson, DNR wastewater engineer in La Crosse provided this summary: In Gays Mills the wastewater treatment plant had higher berms on surrounding ground, but the system still flooded as hydraulic pressure from the incredibly high surface water in the surrounding area backed up into the plant, causing disruptions. The plant itself and the equipment inside remained protected, and sewerage service was restored very quickly. The treatment plants in Wauzeka and Soldiers Grove are also adjacent to the Kickapoo River on somewhat higher ground and did not flood. That's also the case for the Valley Ridge Clean Water Commission site near the Mississippi. The plant operators and public works staff at Ferryville spent long, hard hours to keep that system working.

The battles to provide adequate sewage treatment in flooded areas of Vernon County were even tougher. In Chaseburg the lagoons didn't flood but some lift stations did and part of their wastewater lagoon dike washed out. In Chaseburg, the slope on one of the berms started to fail and a flooded lift station bypassed some untreated sewage. Major flooding in Viola overloaded the main lift station and the treatment pond. In Westby sanitary sewers and the treatment plant's storm pond overflowed, but the plant did not flood. The Viroqua, Readstown and Stoddard systems held as well despite raging waters.

"These are significant victories," said Roger Larson, deputy director of DNR's Watershed Management bureau. "Most wastewater treatment plants are installed at the downstream end of communities as the sewers all flow downstream by gravity. The treatment facilities were especially prone to flooding and could be out of operation for long periods of time or destroyed. The work we started with communities in the early 1980s is really paying off now. By reviewing plans, working with the floodplain managers to provide financial assistance to communities, working with communities to reduce water inflow and infiltration, we are helping communities better protect themselves when disaster strikes. We are assuring that treatment facilities are relocated out of the floodway and are flood-proofed if they are still in the floodplain," Larson said.

Dam busy holding back water

As you'd expect, during flood times the staff who watch floodplains and impoundments were busy trying to keep flooded areas from becoming a deluge. Twelve DNR staff spent night and day inspecting weakened dams, advising owners how to stabilize them, providing emergency assistance, looking for areas where dams or spillways were compromised, helping communities remove clogged debris and assessing the damage when waters receded.

"We have a lot of partners in this process," said Meg Galloway, chief of DNR's Dams and Floodplain Section. "We worked with emergency managers, dam owners, many DNR staff, the Land Conservation Districts who operate the flood control dams, the Department of Corrections, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and FEMA, for starters." It's dirty, wet, dangerous work checking the integrity of dams in the pouring rain, checking spillways and dam gates, cleaning debris and making contingency plans.

The public only focuses on dams when the water is rising, but DNR inspectors are working with communities and dam owners year-round on inspections, recommending that communities limit development in floodplains and providing assistance.

In emergencies, skilled staff from many parts of the agency are called to respond. For instance, in the southwestern and western Wisconsin counties, fisheries crews were enlisted to use their expertise in handling heavy equipment, operating dump trucks, repairing roads and riprap to keep bridges open, cleaning out ditches and roadways, keeping channels from overflowing and working with local road crews. Among their most dangerous assignments was removing huge bales of hay that were swept off pastures and lodged in dams and culverts, creating upstream hazards and downstream concerns. In another case, the National Guard air-lifted heavy pumps to DNR Fisheries Operations crews working to drain an earthen dam to keep it from breaching and collapsing near a town.

Habitat improvements that fisheries staff have installed on trout streams provided added benefits to deflect storm damage. When DNR representatives met with state and federal emergency agencies in September to discuss reimbursements for storm repairs, environmental officials had estimated the storms caused $129,000 of damage where fast-flowing waters scouring over steep gradients ripped their way through eight coulee country trout streams. In places where fisheries crews had gently sloped stream banks in the floodplain and installed LUNKERS – prefabricated artificial banks that provide cover for fish – very little damage occurred, in spite of the raging powerful floodwaters that drained for many weeks.

Similarly, DNR firefighting crews also pitched in by bringing their portable pumps and hoses to the Gays Mills area to help pump out flooded basements in homes and businesses. The foresters and fire fighting staff are so highly trained in emergency response that their skills in carrying out the Incident Command System were also tapped to help organize local response.

And then there were pigs.

One unusual task that drew a lot of media interest and attention was a very sad case in which 1,800-2,000 pigs were electrocuted as a consequence of storms and flooding at a Sauk County farm. DNR waste management staff helped find a safe and sanitary means to render the swine before their disposal became a health issue.

Just as a network of agencies, communities and trained volunteers coalesce to battle storms, so too diverse strengths and skills from many portions of the DNR workforce are brought together to ease the pain when disaster strikes.

Kristin N. Turner is a communicator for DNR's Law Enforcement program. Natasha Kassulke is Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine's creative products manager. David L. Sperling edits the magazine.

The big ones
Recent disasters that warranted emergency response in Wisconsin:

Siren tornado
June 18-19, 2001

Three people die and 16 are injured as a tornado with 150 to 206 mph winds cuts through Burnett and Washburn counties damaging 200 homes.

Ladysmith tornado
Sept. 2, 2002

Forty people injured, 150 buildings destroyed and a 64-block area of this Rusk County town is leveled by a tornado causing $20 million in damages.

Cottonville fire
May 5, 2005

Smoldering embers from a campfire spark a 3,400-acre blaze, the biggest in Wisconsin in 25 years, that burns a six-mile stretch, damaging 30 homes and 60 outbuildings.

Stoughton tornado
Aug. 18, 2005

A tornado with up to 200 mph winds cuts through a 10-mile area north of Stoughton in southeastern Dane County, killing one and causing $44 million in damage; one of a record 27 tornadoes recorded in Wisconsin that day.

Flooding in southeastern Wisconsin
Sept. 12, 2006

Heavy rains cause flash floods that rip through Jefferson County southeast through Kenosha County and into Illinois, causing extensive flooding.

Falk Company explosion
Dec. 6, 2006

Three die and 46 are injured in a morning explosion at a downtown Milwaukee manufacturer, warranting response from five fire companies.

WR&R fire
June 22, 2007

A massive fire at a chemical recycling/disposal plant in Eau Claire warrants evacuating a half-mile radius around the plant to avoid the risk of inhaling chemicals released to the air.