PRESS EDITORIAL: Taste of disaster a warning to get ready for next deluge

Last week’s deluge gave the Port Washington area a small taste, like an unsavory appetizer, of the misery natural disasters have been inflicting on other parts of the country.

The flooding produced by the nine inches of rain that fell in the span of just a few nighttime hours didn’t compare with what hurricanes, tornados and wildfires have wrought elsewhere, but it was nonetheless a powerful statement attesting to the vulnerability of humans, even in an advanced society, to the forces of nature.

It’s not possible to accurately calculate the financial toll exacted by the flooding in destroyed and damaged property, private, business and taxpayer-paid clean-up expenses and business interruption costs, but suffice it to say it’s a large amount for small communities to absorb.        

The City of Port Washington and the other affected communities are organizations that function at a high level in terms of the government services and utilities that make for comfortable living.

The ease with which nature compromised that comfortable living was eye-opening.

The disaster was a meteorological event, of course—what insurance companies like to call an act of God—but human culpability was evident as well.

Some of the worst losses were sustained by the residents of the Lighthouse condominium building at the corner of Jackson and Lake streets, owing at least in part to the failure of the structure’s design and engineering to account for the threat of flooding from the nearby Valley Creek.

Normally a lazy, slow-moving little stream, the creek was transformed with shocking suddenness into a raging river that emptied directly into the building’s underground garage, destroying more than a score of vehicles.

A witness said the water reached within a foot of the ceiling.

The flooding also put the building’s lone elevator out of commission, a loss that was worse than an inconvenience for some of the residents of the eight-story building.

The torrent of water in the creek was so powerful that it easily defeated measures the city had taken when the Lighthouse building was last flooded in 1996, including an enlarged culvert system and a swale intended to carry the overflow through Veterans Park to the lake.

A mile away, residents of the neighborhood on the west side of North Spring Street were the victims of a ferocious flow of floodwater that overwhelmed basements, destroyed household appliances and possessions and even threatened the safety of people in its path.

Stormwater drainage is a chronic problem in the area, some say as a result of the recontouring of nearby land for development.

It is regrettable that a city plan to mitigate the flood threat was stymied several years ago by the refusal of two of the 13 owners along a proposed drainage way to sign off on the necessary easement.

Downtown, establishments along lower Franklin Street were flooded—again.

The sewer system’s inability to handle heavy rainfall has been demonstrated in those blocks more than a few times.

This time it levied a particularly heavy cost on businesses as well as the Port Exploreum museum owned by the nonprofit Port Washington Historical Society, as evidenced by the sodden mounds of ruined products, food and fixtures and the trucks and pumps of reclamation companies summoned from around southeast Wisconsin to aid in the recovery.

The vulnerabilities that exacerbated the impact of the flooding are long standing and resistant to easy fixes, but all require an effort to make improvements to prepare for the next deluge.

In the case of the beleaguered west side residents, the city should restart the effort to find a way to protect the properties from stormwater damage.

These homeowners, most of them living in older houses that were there before flooding was a recurring problem, have nowhere else to turn but the city government.

Though minor in the scheme of worldwide disasters, the Port Washington area flood of 2018 gave an inkling of the weather-related uncertainties that cloud the planet’s future.

That said, let’s not blame an extra-heavy rainfall in Wisconsin on global warming.

After all, the last Port Washington flood, worse than this one, occurred 22 years ago when there was less carbon in the atmosphere and climate change was just warming up.

But there is no scientific doubt that violent weather events worldwide are being driven by the overheated atmosphere and are increasing in power and frequency.

Predictions that this could lead to breakdowns of the fundamental structures of civilized societies should be taken seriously.

In that context, the lesson of the disruption of life in Port Washington caused by a mere nine inches of rain is sobering.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494
 

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