DARLINGTON, Wis. - Two decades after the worst flooding in Wisconsin history, a concerted effort remains to prevent future natural disasters by removing structures throughout the state that have been flooded repeatedly in the past.
Relocation programs for properties within the floodplain have been one of the DNR's top priorities following the flooding in 1993 that covered nearly two-thirds of the state. Darlington, along the Pecatonica River, is showcased by the Department of Natural Resources as an example of a community that has undertaken significant flood mitigation efforts.
"This flood program, it's been a godsend," said Bev Anderson, the former Darlington mayor who embraced mitigation efforts after her city was two feet under water in 1993. "This was a program that helped not only with our buildings, and raised the valuation of our retail center, but it also (did) historic preservation, (and) economic revitalization. You go through a lot of rural communities today and there are a lot of empty buildings. We don't have that."
Anderson, who grew up above her parents' sweets shop on Main Street, applied for every federal and state grant available. The money came with the condition that homeowners and property owners remaining in the floodplain needed to buy flood insurance.
Many of the businesses on the river bank were moved up the hill to the west side of town, but Anderson and other city leaders refused to give up on its historic downtown. Unlike Wisconsin cities like Gays Mills and Soldier's Grove, which moved their commercial districts up neighboring hills and out of the floodplain, Darlington refused to move.
"It was never an option, giving up on our downtown," said Police Chief Jason King, who as a graduated high school senior worked on the downtown clean-up crew in 1993. "Giving up on our community in any shape or form was never an option in my mind and I'm not aware of it being an option in anyone's mind to tell you the truth."
Many of the city's downtown businesses kept their facades while installing vestibules inside their doors to collect water and equalize the pressure on the walls in case of a future flood. Basements were filled, floors were tiled and raised, retail was moved up a flight of stairs and utilities were also relocated higher up. Retaining walls were built outside homes which were also elevated above the floodplain.
"We do love our downtown, all of us and we've put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into it," Anderson said. "There's value in trying to preserve all of this."
Other high-profile mitigation efforts include along Clark's Creek in Sauk County where the only fatality of the 1993 flood occurred. Three properties have been bought in an effort to prevent future flooding in the area just outside Baraboo.Floodplain management helps prevent future floods
In addition, along the Rock River on Blackhawk Island just outside Fort Atkinson, DNR officials have worked to mitigate future risk.
"We've acquired through both state and federal funding dozens of structures down here," said Gary Heinrichs with the DNR. "This community down here on Blackhawk Island used to be wall-to-wall houses and now most of those houses are vacant because of repeated flooding."
For more information on the DNR's Floodplain Management program, click here.
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