A flood of memories: One house survives on former Joseph Street

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

— On soft summer nights, Bob Baker watches runners jog past his home near Riverside Park.

“It’s like watching a human movie,” he said.

But the real draw for the former Chicago resident is the normally tranquil view of the Rock River, where waterfowl come to feed and rest.

“I love it,” he said. “I love the location. It’s a poor man’s water property.”

Five years ago this month, Baker saw another side of the river as he helplessly watched water rise over its banks and creep across Joseph Street on Janesville’s northwest side.

From his front windows, he witnessed the historic flood of 2008 grow worse each day. Eventually, water lapped around his house and the 13 homes of neighbors to the south.

“The water just kept coming until my whole house was surrounded,” Baker recalls.

Today, his home is the only surviving house on Joseph Street, renamed Ice Age Way last year.

The flood is known for changing the landscape with its torrent of water, but the landscape of Joseph Street altered dramatically again after the water receded.

Since 2008, the city bought most of the damaged properties and removed the homes, transforming the neighborhood into open space with prairie grass and more than a dozen young water-tolerant trees.

The only reminder of the surging water is a notice near the river citing record high-water levels June 21, 2008. On that day, the river crested at 13.51 feet—more than four feet above flood stage downstream at Afton.

But the sign does not reflect the human anguish of former residents, who used hip waders to get to their houses; who tried to save furniture by moving it upstairs; who watched the walls in their homes wick water until they turned black with mold.

Baker figures he’s one of the lucky ones.

More than three feet of water filled his unfinished basement, ruining an old furnace and a hot water heater. But no water ever spewed into his living area.

“My neighbors had it a lot harder,” he said.

Eventually, he mounted a new furnace on braces off the floor.

His home, located above flood stage, sat higher than the homes of his neighbors.

“They were good people,” Baker said.

After the 2008 flood, the city received two grants to buy and demolish Joseph Street properties in the floodplain that were substantially damaged.

“We bought 12 homes in the voluntary process,” said Jennifer Petruzzello, Janesville’s neighborhood services director. “The purpose was to prevent future property damage. In one case, the property owner removed the house and still owns the lot. Those homes would have been under water again this spring if they had still been there.”

In March and April this spring, the water crested at 11.76 feet—or two feet above flood stage. Projections were for the water to go even higher.

“It’s nice that no homeowners had to be displaced this year,” Petruzzello said.

Several lots fronting Ice Age Way are still privately owned.

City Parks Director Tom Presny said the city considers the open space along the street as an extension of Riverside Park but has no plans to develop the area with playground equipment or picnic tables.

The last Joseph Street property owners to settle with the city were Jenny Pearson and John Powers. They owned a 1,000-square-foot cottage.

“It was going to be our retirement home,” Pearson said. “We had it completely remodeled with a deck to look out over the water. I absolutely love the water.”

Powers planned to live many years in the cottage, which they landscaped with hundreds of blooming plants.

But rising water during the great flood handed them a different fate.

Both were river greenhorns in 2005 when they moved to their Janesville house from Milton.

“I had no idea what a flood could do,” Pearson said. “It is a beast in itself.”

They watched the river level rise daily.

“One day, our neighbor, who had lived there 50 years, said she was going to move things upstairs in her home,” Pearson remembers. “I had no idea what was coming. We kept being hopeful.”

Every day, they checked the crawlspace under the house and measured the water. For a while, the level stayed just below floor level.

When the river finally invaded their home, they evacuated. Upon return, they found 3-foot carp flopping on the deck. When floodwaters receded, they had their home measured for mold and found that 96 percent of the first floor and 76 percent of the second floor were contaminated.

“I went to the house in hip waders to see what I could salvage,” Pearson said.

Pearson’s son in Beloit opened his basement to them when they had no place else to go. Today, Pearson and Powers live in Beloit, again on the Rock River, where bald eagles perch in a high tree near the shoreline.

“The water has to be 30 feet above flood stage to get to us,” Powers said.

Their traumatic experience on Joseph Street gave them intimate understanding of what it means to be a flood survivor.

“Now, we empathize with other flood victims,” Powers said.

He is a former Realtor and home designer. Pearson is a retired machine operator. She weeps when she remembers how her coworkers and boss helped with cleanup after the disaster.

Powers and Pearson recently returned to their old neighborhood.

“I wanted a quick look,” Pearson said. “Then, I wanted to get out of there. It didn’t feel good.”

The emptiness hurt too much.

“It was a huge loss,” Powers said. “All you can take with you are the memories.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

Last updated: 7:50 am Monday, July 29, 2013

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