By: Joanne M. Haas/WDNR Bureau of Law Enforcement
WDNR wardens equipped with boats, training and a lot of guts rescued residents and pets from flooded Vernon County homes Tuesday night when the Kickapoo River roared into La Farge and Viola with a fury and force that unearthed buildings, fuel tanks, electric lines and more.
Tuesday, August 28, was another in a string of late August days punctuated by record rainfalls, damaging storms, historic floods, property damages and tragically one death in a flooding intersection in southern Wisconsin. On August 28, the storm line had targeted the southwestern counties - namely Vernon County. And precisely - La Farge and Viola, two rural communities of about 700 each along the Kickapoo River.
Wardens Cody Adams, Shawna Stringham, Ed McCann and Aaron Koshatka responded to call after call to help stranded residents and their dogs in what all say now ranks among their top scariest missions of their careers.
Warden Cody Adams, having grown up in the southwestern Wisconsin area, has seen his share of flood rescues in his 10 years as a DNR conservation warden. But this? "I have never seen anything like this in Viola," he said. "And the Viola Fire Department was incredible. We never would have been able to do the rescues without them."
New Warden Aaron, in his third week with Warden Cody, says he went into the Viola rescue missions with tremendous confidence in the other veteran wardens. "This was an eye-opener," he said of the mission, adding his role was to sit in front of Warden Cody's airboat to watch in the dark for obstacles. "Cody's airboat sits so high in the water that the power lines were right over our heads as we passed."
Make that, passed under the wires in the dark of night in fast-moving flood waters with moving obstacles.
FIRST STOP: La Farge
While the wardens were staged in locations for flood response during daylight hours, it wasn't until close to sunset and after that the calls for help flowed in from both communities. But things got going earlier in La Farge where Wardens Ed McCann and Shawna Stringham were staged.
It was mid-afternoon when the Vernon County dispatch called for help from the two wardens - skilled in water rescues thanks to their countless hours patrolling the Mississippi River. The wardens, along with their shallow water boat with the mud motor, were asked to respond to La Farge when flood waters were overwhelming the village.
Warden Ed had driven to -- and through -- LaFarge before, but that was in his truck... and on dry land.
"I have never driven my boat in a city before. The water was raging. It was moving fast - like rapids," Warden Ed said of the conditions he and Warden Shawna faced.
Warden Shawna agrees, saying operating a shallow boat in swift water is nothing like driving a boat in smoother waters. First of all in these conditions you have to find a place to launch. Forget the docks.
"We put the boat in just off the highway," she said. "You have to know what you are doing in these conditions. There were electric lines coming in the water all around - and things like propane tanks going by."
Both wardens use 'scary' to describe the scene. But, they didn't really have any time to worry about fear. They just followed their mission which was simple: save people.
Their first stop was to get three adults and a dog out of a home and back to the dry land. Then right back out to get another adult and another dog. The two wardens asked about the other residences. No one was sure if anyone was inside, so they started checking homes themselves, and came upon a mother and her two kids who needed help.
That was the last load... well almost. There was the rescue of a mouse.
More about the lucky mouse later.
NEXT STOP: Viola
"Although this (La Farge) was scary, the events of Viola topped it all," Warden Ed said Wednesday morning, about eight hours after the last rescues. "We ended up rescuing about 8 or 10 more people in the dark. It was quite possibly the scariest thing I've done in my career. We both had to take a moment at the end to think about how lucky we were. That was in Viola."
Wardens Ed and Shawna left La Farge with their shallow water boat for Viola to meet Wardens Cody and Aaron, who says it took a couple of stops to find a place safe enough to launch to enter the raging Kickapoo near the community.
Warden Cody says what made the Viola rescues so harrowing was the darkness.
"There are trees down, high power lines, things in the water - it is so much more dangerous to try and get people at night," Warden Cody said. "It is so much safer in the daylight. If you think you are going to need assistance, best to call as early as possible - for the sake of yourself and the rescuers. The darkness adds a whole extra aspect to any rescue."
And don't forget the incredible strength of the flood's current.
Warden Aaron's job was not only to watch for these obstacles as Warden Cody operated the airboat over streets in the darkness - thanks to the help of the Viola Fire Department - but also to muscle the boat in place at the doors and windows of homes so residents and pets could be ushered into the airboat. Once in the boat, the citizens were equipped with life jackets and ear protections from the airboat noise. In one case, Warden Aaron stayed behind in the flooded home with two adult daughters so an elderly couple could be taken to shore first and the waiting ambulance.
"I talked to them, trying to keep them calm," Warden Aaron said. One daughter was not convinced she needed to go, as they had just moved into the home. But he talked about the rising flood waters, loss of electricity and potential future situations if she stayed -- and she did agree to leave.
Warden Cody says there was one family that refused assistance. They were gracious and thanked the wardens for stopping but declined to get in the boat. "You try to convince them - the electricity will be going off. It may be days until you will get help. But, they are adults and you cannot force anyone to leave their home."
A Viola Fire Department officer rode with Warden Cody and helped carry an 85-year-old man to the boat in one case. And in another, the same Viola firefighter tried calming a dog by holding its ears as the air boat powered through the water. Those boats are loud!
"He was incredible," Warden Cody said of the Viola firefighter.
Warden Cody says the wardens had to manage communication issues and logistics constantly as they worked in darkness in the constant rushing water. But, he says, in addition to the rescues he will remember one truly wonderful thing.
"One of the things we heard from people we rescued was 'we have nowhere to go.' When we got them to shore, the community was there. There were first responders and citizens with private cars there to help anyone. It was incredible the way these communities come together and help."
Another incredible thing Warden Aaron, as a new officer, witnessed was how the DNR was able to provide resources to help and said it was "phenomenal' to watch the department in action. He also said it was extremely useful to see how the training of incident command - responding to emergencies - he experienced at the academy is so valuable in real life-and-death situations.
At the end of the Viola mission, Wardens Cody and Aaron waited to make sure Wardens Ed and Shawna made it out. That way, everyone was accounted for before they all made their trips home before more highways home could be restricted.
But, what about that La Farge mouse?
"We saw a mouse just struggling in the flood waters," Warden Shawna said. "So, Ed grabbed him and put him on dry land."
The two laughed and Shawna added: "We are getting soft!"
No, not really. It takes guts and expert training to go into those kinds of conditions to help people and animals in life-threatening conditions - and risking your own life to do it.
The wardens were doing what wardens do - protecting people and the natural resources - even if that natural resource is a field mouse fighting the raging flood waters like a champ!
If you have information regarding natural resource violations, you may confidentially report by calling or texting: VIOLATION HOTLINE: 1-800-TIP-WDNR or 1-800-847-9367. The hotline is in operation 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Trained staff relay report information to conservation wardens.