BURLINGTON — National Guardsmen blockaded streets and businesses stayed closed for lack of electricity as Burlington remained in crisis mode Thursday due to unprecedented flooding.
The city continued dealing with historic and dangerous flooding Thursday that affected nearly every property in the community. Police Chief Mark Anderson opened a Thursday evening press conference by saying that the Fox River crested at 16.5 feet early Thursday, but has since begun receding and is expected to continue to do so going forward.
“What we are dealing with in the City of Burlington is unprecedented,” Anderson said.
The Wisconsin National Guard was called in to help, with many roads and bridges impassable and about 4,900 people still without power Thursday. About 85 guardsmen blockaded bridges and streets covered with standing water while, according to Captain Joe Trovato, some others conducted approximately 120 welfare checks through the community.
“They’re checking in to make sure those people are in good condition,” Trovato said. “We will be here as long as the incident commander requires.”
Walker in Burlington
At noon Thursday, guardsman lifted caution tape on the Milwaukee Avenue Bridge to allow a cadre of local and state officials to cross above the surging river. The group included Gov. Scott Walker, State Rep. Robin Vos, R-Rochester, State Sen. Van Wanggaard, R-Racine, along with Burlington Mayor Jeannie Hefty, Fire Chief Al Babe, City Administrator Carina Walters and Anderson. Walker held an impromptu news conference at the foot of the bridge to address the situation. “Something of this magnitude is not only an all-time high for Burlington, it is one of the most aggressive flooding efforts we’ve seen in the state in some time,” Walker told reporters. “That we don’t have a serious injury or fatality is certainly remarkable, and I think is a testament to the first responders of this community stepping up.”
Walker said the dam was inspected and remained stable Thursday afternoon and he declared a state of emergency for Racine, Kenosha and Walworth counties. He added that safety is the top priority as officials monitor flood conditions and work to restore power.
Following his news conference, Walker led the group through Downtown Burlington, shaking hands with residents and business owners, many of whom were in the midst of removing water from their homes and businesses. Two of those residents were Sharry Sullivan and Bob Rubach, who were pumping water out of the basement of The Coffee House at Chestnut and Pine streets in the heart of the Downtown area.
“We’ve got probably about 15, 18 inches (of water),” Rubach said. “We were really lucky.”
The river is expected to dip below the major flood stage level of 14 feet by mid-day Saturday, Anderson said Thursday evening. He added that it will reach normal flood levels by Tuesday.
But Anderson warned that flooding conditions in the city change rapidly and residents should stay away from the river. Officials encouraged those living near the Fox River to evacuate.
“The best news I can tell you is that we’ve had no reports of loss of life or serious injury,” Anderson said. “ Let’s make this tragedy a successful tragedy.”
Anderson added that the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed Wednesday night would again be in effect overnight Thursday and early Friday morning.
Many without power
For many, power outages have been a major headache.
Anderson said that 4,000 people in the Burlington area were still without power as of early Thursday evening. We Energies crews may not be able to restore electricity to some of those customers until Friday afternoon or later, a company spokeswoman said. The outages were caused by a substation submerged in floodwater.
“When flooded, our substation cannot deliver electricity to the wires that serve these customers. Water really can damage our equipment inside that substation,” spokeswoman Amy Jahns said. “Due to our substation still being submerged, we have not been able to even get in there because it’s unsafe at this time.”
Still, Anderson said that that’s down from an initial 25,000 customers who were without power at one point in the flood.
“The target restoration time is tomorrow around noon, but be prepared for longer,” Anderson said. “Don’t rely on the fact that you have been told that power may be turned on by tomorrow.”
The company planned to bring in mobile transformers, a “complex process” that will change the way power is delivered to customers in the affected area, Jahns said.
911 service has not been affected, but the city’s non-emergency number has. Residents should call 262-763-9558 for non-emergency situations. The Burlington Police Department has about 5 feet of water in its basement, which is where its electronic equipment is stored, Anderson said.
Burlington City Hall was closed and could not receive phone calls or emails. City officials are providing updates on the city’s Facebook page.
Sandbags are being filled and distributed to the community, with two pick-up points at Walgreens, 680 Milwaukee Ave., and Karcher Middle School, 225 Robert St. The Wisconsin Department of Corrections sent about 20 inmates from the Robert Ellsworth Correctional Center in Dover to help with sandbagging, according to a release from the Wisconsin Department of Military Affairs.
Disaster recovery sites were set up at Gateway Technical College, 496 McCanna Parkway, and Gooseberries, 690 W. State St.
Tina Henning, the social services director at Love Inc., 480 S. Pine Street said that while their facility did experience some flooding, they were focused on aiding the community as quickly as possible. Love Inc. is partnering with Kwik Trip, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army to provide water, emergency housing and supplies to those affected.
“Our stuff is secondary compared to what our clients and our community are dealing with,” she said. “We wouldn’t be an agency without our community.”
Many people and organizations have contacted the city to donate goods, food and services to the community, Hefty said.
“We are working on creating a process and plan for those requests,” Hefty said. “We will be letting the public know what they can do to help us as soon as we can.”
In the meantime, people can make cash donations to flood relief efforts at any southeastern Wisconsin BMO Harris Bank, Babe said.
The Fox River water level shatters the previous record of 13.5 feet set in 2008. Flood stage begins at 11 feet.
Everyone in Burlington is dealing with some type of flood damage, Anderson said. That includes popular restaurant Fred’s Burgers, 596 N. Pine St., which had roughly 4 feet of water in its basement, according to Ben Mabson of the family that owns Fred’s.
“All our inventory is downstairs, that’s all gone,” Mabson said. “No structural damage, though.”
And while some struck a solemn tone, some tried to make the best of the situation, like Joseph Terry, who sat outside his Pine Street apartment with a half dozen friends drinking beer.
“We decided to sit out here and see how the United States of America reunites,” Terry said. “Everybody seems to be coming together all of a sudden.”
Patrick Leary and Mark Schaaf contributed to this story.