Gales, record-high lake pummel Port

Towering waves driven by winds in excess of 50 mph rip apart breakwater walkway, threaten property along county coast

TOWERING WAVES OVERWHELMED the Port Washington breakwater, at times completely obscuring it, during the height of a gale with winds in excess of 50 mph late Saturday morning, Jan. 11. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Record high January lake levels combined with gale force winds Saturday to create a rare and fierce storm that overwhelmed and damaged the Port Washington breakwater and threatened private property along the Ozaukee County coastline.

“Storms on the lake are nothing new, but we haven’t seen water this high. The combination caused a lot more damage and erosion than we’ve seen in the past,” Public Works Director Rob Vanden Noven said.

Vanden Noven estimated that during the Jan. 11 storm 30 feet of the breakwater entrance was undermined by the waves and a 10-foot-wide section of the walkway is missing, as is a portion of the railing. 

“It’s just hanging there,” he said of the area that was undermined when the waves washed the rocks and foundation out from under that portion of the breakwater. 

Because of the damage, the city has closed the breakwater.

It was the second time in a week that the lakefront was battered by the lake. On Thursday, Jan. 9, a southeast gale drove breaking waves into the harbor, where they washed over the riprap breakwater protecting the marina.

“Thursday there was a lot of wave action, but it was nothing like Saturday,” Harbormaster Dennis Cherny said, noting that Saturday’s storm came from the northeast. “This is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

Cherny said the waves “were crashing over the lighthouse. The (lighthouse) archway — that was just solid water.”

The parking lot east of Newport Shores restaurant “was a sea of water,” Cherny said. “There were some small waves there.”

It wasn’t just municipal properties that were affected by the storms.

Robin Shellow, who lives along Lake Michigan on Cedar Beach Lane in the Town of Belgium, had more than 100 feet of sandy beach in front of her home three years ago. Last week, there was no beach at all, Shellow said on Friday.

“None,” Shellow said. And asked about the storms, she said simply, “It’s so sad I can’t tell you. It’s amazingly sad.”

Pat Pritzlaff, who along with two of her Cedar Beach South neighbors had riprap installed last summer in an attempt to prevent erosion, said the revetment has done its job.

“I’m sure a lot of the land would have been gone again without the rocks,” she said Monday. “It’s been pretty wild. Every day I say, ‘My gosh, I haven’t seen this before.’”

January storms are nothing new,  Cherny said, but they’ve been exacerbated by the high lake levels.

“The high water just magnifies it,” he said. “The wind is whipping up so much more water than before.”

And high lake levels are predicted to continue into the near future, he said.

“Who knows what the rest of the winter will do,” Cherny said.

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, Lake Michigan was 17 inches above its Jan. 10 average last week and three inches higher than the highest monthly average for January.

While the lake level is expected to decrease by one inch in the coming month, the Army Corps said, high water levels and potentially record high water levels are expected to persist for at least the next six months.

Cherny said he doesn’t believe the marina itself sustained any damage during the storms.

“We haven’t been able to walk out on all the piers yet,” he said. “We’ve been looking at it with binoculars so far. Once the ice is gone, we’ll go out on the piers.”

The marina’s floating piers did their job even as waves entered the harbor, Cherny said, adding that if the city hadn’t installed extensions on the floating piers — or the floating piers themselves — the damage would likely have been far worse.

“They moved around quite a bit,” he said. “Without the extensions, we’d have lost the marina.”

Vanden Noven didn’t have a repair estimate for the breakwater, but said he has contacted the city’s breakwater consultant, Foth Infrastructure and Environment, to discuss the matter.

The portion of the breakwater that was undermined in last weekend’s storm is a different area than was similarly damaged two years ago, he said. The city used a flowable concrete mixture to repair that area, Vanden Noven said, and will likely do that again.

“That held,” he said. The cost of that repair was between $5,000 and $10,000.

Vanden Noven said the portion of the walkway that’s missing is at the ramp where the breakwater changes elevation.

“It appears some wave action essentially lifted it off the steel beams that support it,” he said. “It popped off.”

Vanden Noven said that the missing section of walkway and railing is visible in the water.

“I know where it is,” he said. “It’s not in its preferred location.”

Vanden Noven said he will check to see if it was designed or built incorrectly, as that could determine who will pay for the repairs.

“If there’s a weakness in either (the design or construction), Mother Nature will expose it,” he said.

Although the breakwater improvements were designed when the lake was coming off record low water levels, the breakwater should have withstood the wave action, Vanden Noven said.

When the damage is repaired, he said, the city will have to fortify some areas “that should have had more stout construction.”

The city will also have to place some larger rocks along the harbor side of the breakwater at the gateway to prevent undermining in the future, Vanden Noven said.

The city is hoping to make repairs to the far east end of the breakwater this year by installing a prefabricated concrete plank cap on the existing walkway, and he said care must be taken to ensure the railing used is properly anchored to prevent it from being washed away.

While the city has withstood fierce storms before, their frequency seems to be increasing, Vanden Noven said.

“It’s hard to call them unusual anymore,” he said.

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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
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