Rock County agencies were surprised by the unusual flooding the week of Feb. 18, so they are looking to see how they could be better prepared next time.
A National Weather Service meteorologist said some spots around the county likely saw more than two inches of rain, and melting snow added to the volume of water that quickly flowed down frozen hillsides and filled low places.
Some roadsides became roaring streams, ponds formed in yards and fields. Those ponds expanded and deepened more than some residents had ever seen. At least two subdivisions were cut off for days. Residents could not get their cars in or out because of newly formed ponds.
The Rock County Department of Public Works ran out of high-water warning signs, and residents were never told which roads were closed.
Duane Jorgenson, director of public works, and sheriff’s office Sgt. Shena Kohler, county emergency management director, said they are working to set up a way to inform residents of road closures, possibly with an online map.
“We’re really early on here, and we’re trying to get that moving because we know that in the next month we’re probably going to be in a similar event (with the spring thaw),” Jorgenson said.
Jorgenson said his department had about 50 high-water signs and made 40 more until they ran out of blank signs.
They still didn’t have enough.
Other southeastern Wisconsin counties were calling to ask if Rock County had any to spare, he said.
Jorgenson said replenishing the blanks should ensure adequate supplies if floods like this happen again.
That might be a big “if.”
Jorgenson wondered how soon conditions would be ripe for a recurrence of heavy rain, lots of snow to melt and frozen ground in the middle of February.
That question becomes important to another possible change Jorgenson is considering: whether it would be feasible to pump water out of low spots.
A pond formed over Serns Road north of Milton, blocking a small subdivision there. Residents said it hadn’t happened before.
Contracting with business to pump the water out would be “pretty pricey,” Jorgenson said.
An alternative would be for the county to buy its own pumps, but Jorgenson needs to decide how wise it is to invest in pumps if the chances of a repeat flood like this one are slim.
Perhaps the pumps could be used for other purposes, so they would be used more frequently.
“Maybe, but we haven’t gotten there yet,” Jorgenson said.
Kohler said county officials also need to refine their emergency response plans, but as this latest flooding event shows, it’s impossible to be prepared for every kind of weather event.
Another way to prepare is to consider the recent floods when reconstructing roads. A foot of water covered County A east of Janesville during the floods, and it’s slated for reconstruction in a few years. The county will try to make the road more resistant to flooding when it is re-designed, Jorgenson said.
Another flooding spot is on Highway 51 near the railroad trestle north of Beloit, which often floods, Jorgenson said. The highway is the state’s responsibility, but the county will work with the state to seek a solution there.
Asked about global climate change, which predicts more severe weather events as temperatures rise, Jorgenson said he doesn’t know what causes severe weather, but he noted it’s impossible to tell what kinds of weather events will happen in any given year.
“That’s just the nature of the beast,” Jorgenson said. “Mother Nature’s just unpredictable, and that makes our jobs that much more difficult.”
For example, the blizzard of Feb 5-6, 2008, dumped 15 to 21 inches of snow across southern Wisconsin. The storm made travel impossible, and on Interstate 90/39 north of Janesville, hundreds of cars and trucks were trapped for many hours.
“We can’t control Mother Nature. We can’t control the conditions of the job, but we certainly can find ways to respond to that, and how do we do so creatively with the resources we have access to is always a challenge,” Kohler said.