Home owners along Baraboo River brace for the worst as flood waters return

September 7, 2018

NORTH FREEDOM -- As snakes, fish and a scared squirrel swam in the rising flood waters from the Baraboo River surrounding her home here, an exhausted Beverly Wendling wasn’t ready to throw in her last dry towel Thursday afternoon and surrender to the force of Mother Nature.

“My turtle and I are packed but I think we’ll be able to stay. It’s going to be OK,” the 77-year-old Wendling said as her turtle, Pip, hid under a rock in an aquarium that Wendling kept in front of a picture window overlooking the flood waters.

“This house has a lot going for it,” said Wendling of her American Foursquare house built on the banks of the river during the 1880s. “It has an old stone basement and they don’t cave in like some other ones do.”

Wendling was referring to how the flood waters had already forced the foundation of her neighbors’ A-frame home to collapse and were threatening several others in this Sauk County village of about 700 people.

County officials blamed the flood on heavy rains that fell earlier in the week in the La Valle area to the northwest. They said the rain pushed back the timetable for last week’s floodwaters to recede.

Just like last week, the river overflowed its banks and covered parts of Reedsburg before taking aim at Rock Springs, North Freedom and Baraboo.

By Thursday, it was more than 23 feet deep at Rock Springs, almost five feet above the record level set there in July 2017, according to the National Weather Service.

After cresting Thursday in Rock Springs, the river was expected to crest at North Freedom Thursday night and Baraboo on Friday, according to Sauk County Emergency Management.

“We’ve had two 100-year floods in a week,” said Nancy Kaney, the administrative assistant for the Mid-Continent Railway Museum in North Freedom. The museum has suffered some structural damage from the flood waters that were as high Thursday as they were when they first crested on Saturday, she said.

The museum’s locomotives, rail cars and other equipment were moved to safety on higher ground last week, she said.

Wendling’s house is just as important to her as all those train cars are to the museum. She and her husband, Christ, bought it in 1978 and made restoring it a labor of love.

They lived and worked in Chicago when they bought the house and it initially was a part-time home for the Wendlings and their children. But it eventually became a full-time home with 28 new windows, new siding, three new decks and a twice-replaced roof. The property that covers 1½ acres includes seven gardens filled with perennial plants.

So far, this flood isn’t as bad as the one in 2008 that devastated a big chunk of the county, Wendling says. In 2008, the pump running the North Freedom’s sewer line broke and the basements of many village homes -- including Wendling’s -- were filled with raw sewage, Wendling said.

“I remember coming home and seeing my husband standing in the basement chest deep in sewage,” she said.

This year, North Freedom has diverted the sewer from the flooded areas. That has allowed Wendling to keep her basement from flooding with the help of two pumps and an impressive wall of sandbags that she said were filled and laid by about 40 volunteers Wednesday.

But that’s not all that is different this time around.

In 2008, Wendling’s husband was retired and spent most of his time at the house while Wendling continued to work in Chicago as a quality manager specializing in certifications in the automotive business. She drove up to the house on the weekends. Now she’s retired from her job in Chicago, her husband is dead and she lives alone.

But her love of restoring the house hasn’t waned and she definitely doesn’t want to lose it.

Wendling was told she should become concerned if the flood waters reach a depth of 24 feet, so she drew a line marking that depth on a bird feeder in her backyard. She said she couldn’t see that line when she stood on her porch early Thursday, hours before the river was supposed to crest.

By that time, the flood had already played havoc with wildlife. While it was common to see snakes, fish and frogs swimming in the water, Wendling said she also watched a squirrel swimming in the water before jumping into a lilac bush and holding on to its thin branches for dear life.

Also, countless crickets have found refuge in her basement. “They are so noisy you can hardly stand it,” she said.

Preparing for the worst possible scenario in her house, Wendling went to work rolling up all her rugs on her first floor and placing some of her furniture on wooden pallets. “I was awake for 52 hours straight at one point,” she said.

Fortunately for Wendling, she has insurance to cover the monetary cost of the damages. Wendling says she pays $700 annually for flood insurance and was told by a Federal Emergency Management Agency official recently that she should expect that premium to rise every year from now on by 15 percent to 20 percent. “You pay it,” she said.

Sherry Tarnowski and her husband, Howard, are happy they have flood insurance, too. Four months ago, they purchased the A-Frame with the now-collapsed foundation. They didn’t know the 2,500-square-foot home was heavily damaged by the 2008 flood but knew it had some problems when they bought it for just $150,000, Sherry said.

“The previous owners fixed it but didn’t take care of the mold,” she said. “We had to replace all of the carpet and pads. They were infested with mold. They built a second wall to hide the rest. I started getting sick right after we moved in.”

They took a chance on the house because they were desperately searching for a place to own in Sauk County after moving there from West Bend. “It took us 2½ years to find a place,” she said. “Farmers with dumps to rent were charging $1,500. We were saps for buying the place but we were desperate. We almost had it all fixed.”

Two new bedroom sets, a dining set, a new curved TV, and a washer and dryer were destroyed, Sherry Tarnowski said. They have no plans to live near water in the future.

“I want a big, fat heating bill from living up high on a hill,” she said.

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