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Lake Delton empties out

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Associated Press
June 9, 2008
— Floodwater from days of rainstorms washed out an earthen dam and sent a 245-acre lake rushing into the Wisconsin River Monday, ripping homes from the shore and sending them floating downstream.

The overflow happened as authorities ordered evacuations and sandbagging in a number of towns across the southern portion of the state.


Lake Delton, a manmade lake and popular tourist spot south of the Wisconsin Dells, overflowed and emptied out Monday afternoon. Three homes were washed away and two others were torn apart. Gov. Jim Doyle vowed the state would work to replenish the lake.


About 100 people started sandbagging at 2 a.m. Monday, but water drained into the nearby Wisconsin River after the embankment topped by a county road gave way, state and village officials said.


“It’s horrible. There’s no way we could stop it,” said Thomas Diehl, a Lake Delton village trustee. “The breach is between 300 and 400 feet wide. The volume (of water) was just so great there wasn’t anything anyone could do.”


About 20 resorts surround the lake, which was about 10 feet deep.


Bill Pettit, who has owned the Delton Oaks Resort on the lake for 12 years, said he watched the dam wash away and saw the flood water push a two-story lakefront house into the lake. It quickly dissappeared under the rushing water.


Shortly after, he saw the foundation of two other lakefront hosues wash away, leaving the houses in rubble.


As he spoke, he stood on a hill where the flood water collapsed the dam and washed away a portion of County Highway A, which went over the lake.


Pettit looked a half mile down the lake to his resort, where the lake’s water was only a trickle.


“We are out of busienss,” he said of his 30-unit resort, which has been in operation since 1948. “We sell lakefront property but there is no more lake.”


He said he was calling summer vacationers to alert them that the lake is gone and that boating and fishing won’t be possible.


The governor told reporters state workers hope to restore the water to the lake as soon as possible, describing the lake as crucial to the $1 billion annual tourism industry in Wisconsin Dells.


The Department of Natural Resources is studying how to replenish the lake and he expects a decision in the next day or so, Doyle said.


State Sen. Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center, who represents part of the Wisconsin Dells, said the lake’s dissappearance would be devastating to the local economy and to tourism.


“I think it’s a catastrophe,” he said. “There’s a large amount of physical damage here and when you add that up with the economic impact it’s going to be enormous.”


Laurel Steffes, a DNR spokeswoman, said state officials worried about other dams that were overflowing or near failure.


A couple thousand people in Columbia County about 30 miles north of Madison were urged to evacuate below the Wyocena and Pardeeville dams, said Pat Beghin, a spokesman for the county’s emergency management.


The Wyocena Dam’s spillway had washed out, and workers were sandbagging to try to save it, Beghin said. The Pardeeville dam also was overflowing, he said.


The Upper Spring Dam in Palmyra was failing, state emergency management officials said. But only one house in the rural area was in danger, Palmyra town chairman Stewart Calkins said.


The DNR was checking out other dams in western Wisconsin, said Mike Goetzman, a spokesman for Wisconsin Emergency Management. The DNR was flying over dams in Vernon County and sending engineers to other counties — including Columbia, Dodge, Sauk and Jefferson — to assess dams there, Goetzman said.


Doyle had declared 30 counties in a state of emergency by noon Monday, and at least 130 inmates from the Department of Corrections were helping sandbag throughout the region.


The Danville River Dam in Danville overtopped on Monday, causing officials to evacuate more than 100 people from an apartment complex, condo building and several homes with airboats, mayor Nancy Osterhaus said. Officials released water from the Fall River dam to keep it from failing, but that exacerbated the flooding already going on, she said.


“They were totally cut off, there was no way to get to them,” she said. “Both ends of the street had flooded. We got everybody out of there.”


In western Wisconsin, state troopers were asked to help with evacuations in Elroy and Wonewoc, Goetzman said.


“The water is rising and it’s still a very serious situation,” he said.


Forecasters expected the rain to stop Monday and possibly return Tuesday, said Jessica Brooks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse. Heavier storms could come Thursday, leading to even more flooding, she said.


Roads throughout the state, including at least 32 state highways, were closed Monday, Goetzman said.


A no-travel advisory was issued for Crawford, Richland and Vernon counties.


In Vernon County, the damage would likely surpass the $60 million done by floods in August, said


Linda Nederlo, the public information officer at the Vernon County Emergency Operations Center.


“This flood is much more severe, extensive than the flood in 2007,” Nederlo said. Ontario, Hillsboro, La Farge and Viola were hardest hit this time around, she said.


Associated Press Writers Todd Richmond in Ontario, Wis., and Emily Fredrix and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.

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