- Associated Press - Monday, September 27, 2010

PORTAGE, Wis. | Floodwaters from the burgeoning Wisconsin River turned a rural neighborhood into a virtual island Monday, cutting off dozens of homes from the outside world.

The river was seeping through and surging around a levee protecting the Blackhawk Park neighborhood in the town of Caledonia just southeast of Portage. The only road in was covered by nearly a foot of rust-colored water.

Greg Matthews, spokesman for the Wisonsin Department of Natural Resources, said the levee was in “bad shape” Monday night but that officials were optimistic conditions would improve before there was a complete failure.

A few homes in the neighborhood’s low-lying areas were surrounded by water, but most of the houses stood on high ground and remained untouched Monday afternoon.

Emergency workers asked people to leave on Sunday as the river began to rise after last week’s heavy rains overwhelmed rivers. Some 300 people live in the neighborhood, and Columbia County Emergency Management director Pat Beghin said about 25 homes remained occupied.

Mr. Beghin said the worst-case scenario was water could wash away the access road, stranding those residents for up to a week.

A century-old earthen dike, part of a 14-mile berm, separates Portage and the neighborhood from the river. But the river rose so high and so forcefully it surged around the dike and poured into the bottom lands around the neighborhood, said Steve Miller, director of the DNS Bureau of Facilities and Lands.

The rising water chipped away at portions of the berm system Monday afternoon. Much of the levee protects forest and farmland, but a breach in the Blackhawk Park portion could make matters far worse for the neighborhood by potentially washing away the access road.

DNR workers patrolled the length of the berm Monday, using sandbags to control the seepage. Mr. Matthews said the effort seemed to be working.

The woods around Forrest Travis’ fishing camp were a bog on Monday. Water rushed across the gravel service road a few steps from his camp, but Mr. Travis, a 53-year-old part-time construction worker, said he spent Sunday night at the camp and didn’t have any plans to go anywhere.

“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “It would have to get a lot higher to get where we’re standing.”

Diana O’Neill, 56, a retired De Forest police officer, evacuated on Sunday. On Monday, she inched her truck along the access road, creating a wake, to get back to her house.

Her place was still dry when she arrived. She grabbed three dozen eggs and her Chicago Bears shirt for the big Green Bay Packers-Chicago Bears game on “Monday Night Football” and inched her way back out. The water was easily an inch higher than when she drove in.

“If it wasn’t for the road being overrun, I would have stayed here. I’ve got stuff to get done,” she said.

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