Two years after historic flooding, county, city say area is ‘more ready’

MADISON, Wis. – Two years following the severe storm that led to historic flooding in Dane County, the city and county have turned their focus to flood mitigation.

That storm dropped 15 inches of rain in the area causing major flooding and more than $150 million in damage. That rainfall broke a state record for the heaviest amount to fall in a 24-hour period.

The west side of Madison took the brunt of the flash flooding at the storm’s start, and then lake levels rose, leading to issues elsewhere in the city.

“There was so much rain with no place to go,” said John Powless, founder of the John Powless Tennis Center on the city’s west side.

Many people remember where they were for the downpour on August 20, 2018. Powless ended up trapped by water inside his tennis center until 2 a.m., with extensive damage that remained long after.

“Seventy-two hours after this happened, we weren’t sure we’d still be here,” he said.

But they are, thanks in part to a generous membership who helped raise funds. Powless renovated so the center is now in better shape than ever.

“We’re doing it in the manner, if the water ever comes back all we’ll have to do is move it out, sanitize the floors and walls,” he said. “It’s prepped in case that ever happens again.”

Powless said that’s a real concern.

“Every time it rains and it rains heavily, I’ll drive back here,” he said.

Powless thanks city engineers, who have talked with him as part of their efforts to better prepare Madison.

“Clearly nothing like this has ever happened that we have on record,” said Janet Schmidt, principal engineer in the city’s storm water section of the engineering department. “Climate change is making it worse. We might have thought we were prepared before. We’re now realizing as things change, we have to change along with it.”

In addition to small storm water management changes over the past two years, Schmidt said engineers are currently working on 10 watershed studies. The goal is to find deficiencies in the system and plan larger projects for the future, which could mean costly infrastructure changes.

There are a number of options, Schmidt said, including restructuring retention ponds, putting in bigger pipes and infiltrating water into the ground.

“Our previous budget before the floods hit us was about $6 million,” she said. “After the floods hit us, this next year’s budget we’re proposing a $21 million dollar budget.”

In the past two years, Dane County has spent about $30 million in flood readiness, according to the executive’s office.

“We can control what we can control and have to react to what we can’t,” Dane County Executive Joe Parisi said.

That includes purchasing properties to maintain wetlands and prairies to absorb water and dredging channels between lakes so they don’t get clogged.

Parisi said the county is also working to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, as well as improving emergency response by purchasing sandbagging machines and more air boats.

Schmidt said in the past two years, the engineering department has placed a larger focus on public input and information, dedicating a website to resources for residents.

She said they should have more information to share about the watershed studies in a couple months.

“We’re more ready, I’d say,” Schmidt said.

“We’re in a much better place than we were,” Parisi said. “In a couple years when our dredging projects are completed, we’ll be in an even better place.”