Ice-choked river unleashes record flooding

Redirected by ice and cresting at historic levels, Milwaukee River overwhelms Ozaukee County communities

WAUBEKA’S RIVER ROAD looked more like a river than a road after the Milwaukee River poured into the community like, in the words of one witness, a tsunami early Saturday afternoon. Several buildings, including the firehouse, were flooded. Other communities along the river, including Saukville, Newburg and Grafton, also experienced serious flooding. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

A Milwaukee River choked by ice, crested at record-high levels and caused historic  flooding that overwhelmed houses and businesses, swept away trees and devastated a park in northern Ozaukee County’s river communities late last week and early this week.

“It came in like a tsunami. I’ve been here 37 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Reginald “Tony” Rotheray said while cleaning out his Voiture Ltd. car repair shop in Waubeka. “I’ve talked to people who’ve lived here for 60 years and they never saw anything like this.”

Waubeka, where 20 homes and businesses were flooded and the fire station was inundated and had to temporarily relocate, was the “biggest single point of impact” of the disaster, Ozaukee County Emergency Management Director Scott Ziegler said. 

Flood waters crested at 13.77 feet at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Waubeka, obliterating the previous record of 11.35 feet set in 1975, according to the river gauge there, Ziegler said.

Other communities didn’t fare well either.

In Saukville, the river rose to 15.59 feet at about 1 a.m. on Sunday, nearly matching the 16.75 record set in June 2008.

On Pioneer Road in the Town of Grafton, the gauge reached 15.33 feet on Saturday morning, surpassing the record of 13.98 feet also set in June 2008.


At about 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Waubeka Fire Chief Jason Caswell received a call that the river was pouring onto River Road and threatening the fire station. The firefighter who called went to move his car “and by the time he got back water was in the station,” Caswell said.

Down the street near the Highway H bridge, Eric “Buff” Kocher, owner of The Dawg House, had corned beef and cabbage ready to serve to patrons for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration. 

Suddenly, the water started rising.

“It came in like crazy; the basement filled in 5 to 10 minutes,” Kocher said. “I closed an hour later.”

Before he knew it, there was four feet of water in his driveway, inundating his car.

Kocher also lost power, and on Monday was using a small generator to keep his freezer running. 

That afternoon, the fire department pumped out his basement and those of other houses on River Road, but Kocher still didn’t have power.

“Hopefully we will get it soon and get the sump pump running,” he said. 

Kocher said he was hoping to reopen this weekend, “if I get lucky.”

The Highway H bridge was closed until Tuesday due to fears that ice slamming into it may have moved the bridge.

On Monday, the bridge was inspected and given a clean bill of health.

Along with ice, the river was filled with trees and other flotsam from people’s yards and driveways.

Rotheray said he saw a dog house float down the river, a pop-up camper trailer was fished out by the bridge and a snowmobile trailer was reported lost.

There also were reports that cars were lost. One was seen beneath a pile of ice and another one remains lost, Ziegler said.

The American Red Cross, Ozaukee County Emergency Management and the Waubeka Fire Department opened a reception center where residents affected by flooding could get cleaning supplies, water and other items.

Ziegler said he was impressed with the community response to the disaster.

“In Waubeka, the way it got cleaned up was amazing,” he told Ozaukee County Public Safety Committee members on Tuesday. “The different communities really came together, from Silver Creek, Port Washington, Fredonia and others.” 

And what did Kocher do with all that corned beef and cabbage?

“I gave it to the fire department; they helped me out a lot,” he said.


Highway W was closed last week after the river poured over its banks thanks to rain and snow melt.

“We had a big problem with people driving around ‘road closed’ signs,” Ziegler told the county Public Safety Committee. 

Two cars had to be rescued from the water “and nearly a third,” Ziegler said. He said a semi-trailer also drove through the water and dragged ice onto Highway 33.

In one of the water rescues, four people who had been drinking were  rescued from a car floating down the river at about 9:42 p.m. on Saturday. 

A fifth person jumped from the car and was hiding on an island in the river. But he refused to be rescued because he didn’t want to go back to prison for violating his probation.

A drone equipped with a thermal imaging camera was used to locate the man, officials said. 

Four people were transported to a local hospital for treatment of hypothermia.

The driver, a 36-year-old Dalton man, is facing drunken driving charges, and police are asking for charges of recklessly endangering safety.

Cathy and John Brunnquell’s yard on Highway W was hit by huge slabs of ice that washed into their yard, uprooting trees and bushes and plowing their lawn.

“Some of them (blocks of ice) are a foot thick and 10 to 14 feet wide,” she said. “I won’t know how much damage is done until they melt, probably sometime in May. We’ve lived here 29 years and never seen anything like it.

“The volume was incredible and how quickly it came,” she said. 

On Monday afternoon, the ice broke up near Waubedonia Park in Fredonia and created what Ziegler called an “ice shove” downstream in Saukville Monday night.

“We thought that was it (on Sunday) and then (Monday night) was worse than Sunday,” Brunnquell said.

Across the river from Brunnquell, the ice assault flooded Mill Street, closing it.

“I came home Monday and the barricades were down and the road was dry,” Saukville Fire Chief Gilly Schultz said. “And all of a sudden they called and said the water was jamming up behind 500 Mill Street and it was covering the road.”

Dawn Brooks said a rental house she owns with her husband, Rob, on Mill Street was “washed out.” A picture of the house posted on social media showed it surrounded by flood waters.

“We have ice now where there never was water” on Mill Street, Ziegler said.

In the midst of all the disaster, there also were moments of humor and neighborliness.

Residents on Highway W north of Saukville were stranded as flood waters blocked the intersections at Highway 33 to the south and Mink Ranch Road to the north. 

On Saturday night, Saukville firefighters came through the water to check on residents.

When they got to Ann and Peter Schmidt’s house, Mrs. Schmidt told them they were fine, but had an idea of how they could help.

“I said, ‘If you want to do something for us, how about making a beer run?’” she said she told them.

“They laughed but they didn’t (make the beer run),” she said. “I was half kidding.”

On Sunday, owners of the Riverview Inn, which also was trapped by water, went door to door inviting the stranded residents to come for brunch.

Regular restaurant employees couldn’t get there because of the high water, so neighbors helped wait tables.

“That was great that they did that. The neighbors on this road they help each other,” Brunnquell said.


Newburg Fire Chief Mark Chesak said Fireman’s Park sustained an estimated $50,000 in damage after ice floes ripped out the left field and right field fences of the baseball field, damaged the concession stand, undermined parts of the black top driveway and washed away picnic tables and other equipment.

“It all floated down stream toward Waubeka,” Chesak said. 

Chesak said that may spell the end for the ballfield in Fireman’s Park.

“It’s destroyed. It’s a question of whether we’re going to rebuild it. This is the fourth time. It cost us about $20,000 three or four years ago,” he said.

Firefighters also donned cold water suits to help village workers repair a manhole and lift station that were undermined by flood waters, which threatened to invade the sanitary sewer system.

That emergency prompted the village to ask residents to not use their plumbing for a time. 

Village Administrator Rick Goeckner said “it will take some time” to make repairs.


In the Town of Grafton, the Riverview Kennel on Pioneer Road was inundated and all its animals needed to be evacuated.

The Grafton Fire Department used a rescue boat to evacuate one couple and their dog while the other dogs were transported to Charming Paws in the Village of Grafton.

 Grafton Fire Chief William Rice said firefighters were shoulder-deep in the fast-rising water.

Village Public Works Director Amber Thomas said there was ice damming near the Interurban Trail but there was no major flood damage other than some trees that were uprooted along the river.  

On Monday, Ozaukee County Board Chairman Lee Schlenvogt declared the area a disaster, starting the process of applying for state aid.

Officials encouraged residents with private wells to have their running water tested.

Ziegler sdismised rumors that the flooding was caused by the intentional release of water  or the destruction of ice dams in Newburg and other places. He said dynamiting was not used to break up ice.

Ziegler said the flooding was “a natural event.” What happened in Waubeka was a local event unrelated to what happened in Newburg, he added.

“It was it’s own event from ice jams that formed at the bridge just to the east of it,” Ziegler said.

Several officials said that floodng at Newburg seems to have increased in recent years since the dam there was taken down in 2012 by the county and Department of Natural Resources.


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