Flood-damaged levee holds in central Wisconsin

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PORTAGE, Wis. (AP) — Dozens of residents opted to stay in their flood-stranded homes in central Wisconsin Monday, even as a nearby levee weakened by recent heavy rain barely held.

Columbia County Emergency Management director Pat Beghin said the levee on the Wisconsin River had deteriorated in the Town of Caledonia, just west of Portage, after recent thunderstorms bloated the waterway.

If the levee breaks it could destroy an already flooded access road to the town’s Blackhawk Park neighborhood, Beghin said. Some 75 of 300 area residents have decided to stay in their homes, he said.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources engineers were inspecting the 14-mile levee system, which includes some dikes built mainly of sand in the 1890s.

DNR spokesman Greg Matthews said water is bubbling out of some portions of the levee. Emergency workers have sandbagged those areas, but some saturated portions of the levy system could collapse, Matthews said.

“The entire levy continues to degrade,” he said, adding that DNR workers are repairing what they can.

The river overflowed its banks into low-lying areas of Portage, a city of about 10,000 some 40 miles north of Madison. Some residents ventured to the water’s edge to watch the river race by.

Staring at the churning water, Shawn Schweitzer, 39, of Portage, said that usually at this time of the year the water is so low you can nearly drive across the river bottom.

“Now it would be bye, bye,” referring to the floating debris. “I’ve never seen it move this fast,” Schweizter said.

Down the street, Linda Levaggi, 47, a Walmart employee, sat on a bench near the river drawing the swift water on her sketch pad. Levaggi said she wasn’t worried about her home because she lives on high ground, but that has never seen the river so high.

“It is a concern,” she said.

In Blackhawk Park, Kevin and Lindsay Remus chose to bundle their 17-month-old daughter, Amanda, and leave Sunday.

Kevin Remus told the Portage Daily Register they decided to leave because the road could soon become impassible. The family went to the American Red Cross reception center at St. John the Baptist Episopal Church in Portage.

Beghin says authorities are monitoring other towns along the river where minor flooding has occurred.

National Weather Service hydrologist Bryan Hahn says the Wisconsin River reached a record level of 20.59 feet Monday at 6 a.m. That breaks a previous record of 20.50 set back in 1938.

The river was expected to hold steady through Tuesday, Hahn said, then slowly decline over the next seven days. Forecasters expect the weather to remain dry in the area for the rest of the week, although a flood warning remains in effect in Columbia County.

Separately, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty said Monday he plans to call legislators to a special one-day session next month to approve relief money for people affected by floods in that state.

Heavy rain last week caused serious flooding in parts of southern Minnesota. The small towns of Zumbro Falls and Hammond were among the hardest hit.