Storms unleash floodwaters on Port

Torrents fueled by 9 inches of rain early Monday engulf cars, burst into homes, close roads

A MUD-COVERED Toyota that had been underwater early Monday when the underground parking garage at the Lighthouse Condominiums in Port Washington flooded was towed out of the structure Tuesday and loaded on a flatbed. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington residents are reeling from the impact of torrential rains that fell on the city Sunday night — a downpour compounded by rain on Monday and Tuesday nights.

“It was just coming down so fast the ground couldn’t handle it and the sewers couldn’t handle it,” City Administrator Mark Grams said. “We got a lot of rain in a short period.”

While other parts of Ozaukee County were affected by the rain, none was as impacted as Port, where the National Weather Service said nine inches of rain fell Sunday night, flooding streets and highways.

I-43 near Port Washington flooded early Monday and was closed after swamped vehicles stalled there. Port firefighters used boats to take five people from their swamped cars to land and walked five others out of danger, Fire Chief Mark Mitchell said.

“I would guess they hit a wall of water and didn’t see it,” he said, estimating water was four feet deep in spots.

A Port Washington police squad car was also totaled in the floodwaters, Grams said.

Houses and businesses throughout the community were also flooded. The causes included everything from backed-up sewers and drain pipes to overwhelmed or failed sump pumps to floodwaters that pushed their way into homes.  

The cleanup began long before the rain ended, with homeowners piling up soggy items along the curbs and in driveways.

It’s difficult to quantify how many people were affected, but Mayor Marty Becker, a pharmacist, noted that at least 60% of the people who stopped at the pharmacy told him they had water in their homes.

“It’s everything from a damp carpet to a few inches to feet of water in the basement,” Becker said. “I feel so bad for people. I know it’s really hard to lose heirlooms, yearbooks, pictures — things that mean a lot.”

At the Lighthouse Condominiums, 415 Lake St., the damage included vehicles. The underground parking garage flooded, submerging more than 20 parked vehicles as well as other items stored there.

“The water came within a foot of the ceiling,” said resident Karen Oleski.

Many of those damaged cars were parked outside the high-rise building Tuesday, covered in muck.

Oleski said she was awakened by lightning early Monday and was shocked when she looked out her window.

“I looked down and, oh my God,” she said, because water was everywhere.

Water rushing down Valley Creek is typically directed through a culvert and along a swale to the lake, but Grams said a “huge, huge, huge stump” about five feet in diameter floated down the creek and plugged the culvert. Water then ran over the culvert, rushing onto Lake Street toward the lake and filling the nearby entrance to the high-rise garage.

“If that hadn’t happened, this wouldn’t have been nearly as bad,” Grams said of the plugged culvert.

“The swale they built worked pretty good except the water was up 15 feet on each side,” Oleski said.

The flood also knocked out the elevator in the building.

“I don’t know which I miss more, my car or the elevator,” Oleski said.

When the waters receded, Lake Street and Veterans Memorial Park were covered in debris, including large trees and logs, keeping city street crews busy.

At the Port marina, Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said he found debris filling the harbor between piers four and five when he arrived about 7 a.m. Monday.

“It was considerably ugly. The boats there were completely blocked with trees and debris,” Cherny said, adding he’s received no reports of damage to boats. “I’m talking trees 70 to 80 feet long. You could have walked across the harbor.”

Cherny said employees used boats and ropes to pull 20 to 30 trees from the marina to the launch ramps and into the parking lot, where city crews cut them up.    

Port’s north beach was filled with debris, Grams said, but so far the bluff has held.

A portion of the hillside behind the city garage on Moore Road collapsed, Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said, and the railroad was inspecting the tracks above it for any potential damage.

Downtown Port was hard-hit. Cleaning service vans were lined up on streets as businesses and offices, some of which were closed for a time, tried to mop up. 

A number of streets, from side roads to main thoroughfares, were blocked by flooding. Highway 33 was closed early Monday, forcing motorists to drive to Grafton in detours that took as long as an hour in bumper-to-bumper traffic, but after being reopened for only two hours it was closed again when a sewer line collapsed near Dekora Woods Boulevard. The road reopened again about 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Gov. Scott Walker toured parts of the county Tuesday, inspecting that portion of the road as well as areas near the Milwaukee River, which was rising.

Ozaukee County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt, anticipating Tuesday night’s rain, declared a state of emergency, which allows officials to seek state and federal resources if the need arises.

A large portion of the culvert on Hales Trail near the bike path in Port Washington was washed out by the stormwater, Vanden Noven said, as well as parts of the embankment. The street remained open, although the bike trail was closed, as crews worked on a fix.

“We had problems on many creeks,” Vanden Noven said. “Many of the culverts on three creeks (Sauk, Valley and Mineral Springs) were backed up with debris.”

Mitchell said it took just 10 minutes for Hales Trail to flood, noting that was the time between when he traveled back and forth on the street.

“Garbage cans were floating down the street, and a lot of the cones and construction barriers,” he said. 

The water department shut down for a couple of hours overnight early Monday and asked residents to conserve water, Water Supt. Dave Kleckner said. But the plant was back on line by 5:30 a.m. and cancelled that conservation request about 7 a.m.

“There was never any question of contamination of the water,” Kleckner stressed. “It was just a way for us to try to be sure and keep enough water in the water towers.”

The city’s wastewater plant was overwhelmed by the amount of water flowing through the system, Wastewater Supt. Dan Buehler said.

“We had tanks to the brim,” he said.

A number of manhole covers on Jackson Street were blown off by the pressure of the water flowing through the system, Buehler said, and the lift station behind Duluth Trading Co. “couldn’t keep up with the storm,” he said. “It was like a river going down Jackson Street.”

Some untreated water was sent into the lake, Buehler said.

“I have no idea of the quantity,” he said. 

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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.

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