A flood of frustration
Normally it takes eight days.
Not that flooding is new to Afton. This is the fourth flood Donna Quinn and her family have dealt with since they moved to 3501 S. River Road in December 2000.
In fact, Quinn’s husband, Jim, enjoys shooting carp in the backyard when the river floods in the spring or fall.
But in January?
Quinn bought three sump pumps this week to replace the frozen pumps in her basement. Quinn’s backyard was full just hours after she plugged in the new pumps, she said.
Quinn lives in one of several houses facing the river across South River Road. Many homes in the neighborhood have water in the yard—particularly in the backyard.
Icy water has crept across the road in three spots and stands a foot deep just a stone’s throw south of Quinn’s driveway.
A half mile north, the water was only 3 or 4 inches deep across the road. But Quinn had stocked up on groceries and brought her son home early from school just in case.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” Quinn said. “It’s just a mess. We’re doing what we can to minimize the damage.”
The problem started Sunday at the Newark Road Bridge in Beloit Township, Town of Beloit Assistant Fire Chief Gene Wright said. Large chunks of ice raced down the river that day and got caught at the bridge.
As the water flowed around them, the chunks tipped sideways and stuck there. More huge ice chunks joined in until the pile resembled a beaver dam, Wright said.
That’s an ice jam.
The jam built north, one bridge at a time. From Newark Road, it jammed at the railroad tracks and then Townline Road.
Each jam caused flooding to the north of the blockage, as if the ice were squeezing the water out the sides of the river.
The most recent jam is at the Eau Claire Bridge, sometimes called the South River Road Bridge, in Rock Township.
That means banks along the river at South River and Happy Hollow roads are actively flooding.
That was what Janesville firefighters found when they sloshed through ankle-deep water to get into Keith Hegelmeyer’s home at 3636 W. Cemetery Road, Afton.
Firefighters helped Hegelmeyer and his damp and angry cat, Faith, out of the house Wednesday afternoon. Hegelmeyer and Faith were going to a hotel in Beloit to meet the Red Cross.
Hegelmeyer has lived in the house right on the river bank east of Afton Road his whole life, and this is the deepest flooding he’s seen.
“It’s flooded, but not to the point where it came in the house,” Hegelmeyer said.
An ice jam caused a similar flood 50 years ago, Hegelmeyer said.
It was frustrating, he said, to sit and watch the water rise for four days and not be able to do anything about it. Hegelmeyer was in favor of blasting the ice jam, but that’s not an option, said Rock County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Barbara Tillman.
That’s what she learned in a conference call Wednesday morning with emergency responders and engineers.
“You can’t utilize any mechanical means to break up the ice,” Tillman said. “The benefit isn’t there. Basically, it’s a wait and watch system.”
The wait appeared to be over for residents south of the Eau Claire Bridge on Wednesday. With each jam, the spillway grew, bringing apparent relief to the south.
On Bass Creek Road by the Rollette Wetland Restoration Area, Wright found air pockets below the surface ice in the roadway. It looked like the water had receded a little under the ice, he said.
It was the same in Todd Johnson’s yard at 5103 S. Christianson Road, Afton. Johnson’s neighbors had been evacuated Sunday, and Johnson had just filled up his 400th sand bag when Wright stopped by Wednesday morning.
The river had been cracking all night like a shotgun, Johnson said. But between the river and his yard, it looked like air instead of water was under the ice.
Johnson asked Wright what would happen when the jams melted.
“I don’t know,” Wright said. “This is all new to everyone.”
What caused the ice jam?
The Rock River has a kidney stone.
At least that’s how Town of Beloit Assistant Fire Chief Gene Wright described it.
Beginning at the Newark Road Bridge in Beloit Township on Saturday, an ice jam is expanding north through the river. As it grows, it pushes water out of its path and over the riverbanks.
But what is an ice jam? It’s a blockage caused by frozen, tumbled ice that limits the flow of water in the river.
Huge chunks of ice were racing down the river Saturday, Wright said. One by one, they got hung up on the Newark Road Bridge.
The hunks tipped on their sides, choking the flow of water. As more and more ice crashes into the bridge, the pile builds up like a beaver dam, Wright said.
The jam grew past the railroad trestle and, by Saturday night, it was blocking the Townline Road Bridge in Beloit Township.
At that point, Happy Hollow Park in Afton started flooding. By Tuesday, the ice was jammed at the Eau Claire Bridge, sometimes called the South River Road Bridge, in Rock Township.
Wednesday, the water was rising steadily north of Afton.
Wednesday night was the coldest part of the week with temperatures near minus 10.
This afternoon’s lows will be around 10 degrees, and the weather will warm up until it’s in the 30s on Saturday.
The river was predicted to peak at 12.5 feet Friday. At 8 this morning, it was at 12.19 feet, according the United States Geological Survey gauge at Afton.