50 years ago today, La Crosse was bracing for flooding along the Mississippi. A week later, the river crested at a record setting 17.9 feet, nearly 6 feet over the flood stage. Parts of the city were plunged in water, and for many, daily life was put completely on hold.
“We had National Guards on duty here because of the flood,” said Bill Petersen, Associate Archivist with the La Crosse Public Library. “They actually had to carry weapons after some vandalism was found so it was a pretty scary situation.”
The hardest hit areas were along the riverfront as well as locations on the Northside and on French Island.
“There was a lot of damage,” said Gary Buchner. “A lot of basements caved in, the floors buckled up.”
Buchner lived in La Crosse in 1965. His home and business on Sumner Street was flooded.
“We lost part of the dike and it started flooding out so, yeah. It wasn't good,” said Buchner. “You couldn't work and you didn't know what the living conditions were going to be and everything else. Or if you even had a place to live, ‘cause you couldn't get to your house. Everything was being done by boat and canoes and whatever.”
For nearly two weeks, from April 17th through the 29th, the Mississippi was above the “major flood” stage of 15 feet. Massive sandbagging operations were set in place, uniting the community.
“Probably the most amazing response was the sandbagging effort, led by Eugene Fry and the parks department,” said Petersen. “They had a lot of young people from school, UW-L, high schools, and older people too, volunteering to fill sandbags.”
“They wanted to help their neighbors, help wherever was needed,” said Buchner. “Even the people that were up on dry areas came down to help. It was a good effort for everybody. I think it really did pull the community together.”
But even with the whole community lending a hand, the force of the water was too much to contain everywhere.
“The only place you could get from the south side to the north side was on highway 16,” said Buchner. “Otherwise it just separated the city. It was just total water.”
“Every mode of transportation was affected in some way,” said Petersen. “Railroads, even aviation. The airport was flooded, some runways flooded, so it was very difficult to go on with your life normally.”
According to Petersen, an estimated $150,000 in damage was done to the city. But this excludes damage to private property, and the $1.2 million spent on flood preparation. In today's economy, Petersen says the cost to the city would have exceeded $10 million.
And there's another cost to the flood. One that's lingered for the last 50 years.
“We get calls here whenever they talk about high water possibility in the spring,” said Petersen. “‘Where was the water in the '65 flood? Am I in danger? Do I have to worry about this?'”
“It left a lasting impression,” said Buchner.” You remember it.”
The 1965 flood was the result of cool temperatures and heavy snowfall in March combined with wet April weather and deep frost in the ground.
More information about the 1965 flood can be found at: http://www.weather.gov/arx/flood1965
Information on flood safety can be found at: http://www.floodsafety.noaa.gov/
The 1965 flood was the result of cool temperatures and heavy snowfall in March combined with wet April weather, and deep frost in the ground.
According to the National Weather Service, in an average year flooding causes more deaths than tornadoes and hurricanes combined. http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2006/s2601.htm
Thankfully, many of these deaths can be avoided.
The biggest culprit is people trying to drive through flood waters and losing control of their vehicles.