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Officials preparing for high flood risk as snow melts

As Chippewa Valley residents dig out from yet another snowstorm this weekend, local officials are looking ahead to what happens when it all melts.

Though it might seem hard to imagine at this point, the towering snow banks lining streets and driveways soon will turn to water. And with that much-anticipated rite of spring will come the risk of flooding.

The National Weather Service is predicting a higher-than-usual risk of flooding this spring for much of the Upper Midwest, including west-central Wisconsin, as a result of the winter’s record-setting snowfall. Eau Claire received 53.7 inches of snow in February, shattering a 90-year-old record for monthly snowfall in what through Friday had been the third-snowiest winter in recorded history.

“We’re taking this pretty seriously,” said Tyler Esh, emergency management coordinator for Eau Claire County. “With the historical snowfall levels after a fall that was wetter than normal and more precipitation in the forecast, a lot of factors are lining up to potentially make it a bad year for flooding.”

Local public works officials and emergency response personnel will meet Monday to go over flooding response plans and discuss the latest National Weather Service flooding outlook, which was released Thursday.

The agency’s analysis indicated the Chippewa River has a 30 percent chance of reaching major flood stage, or 778 feet above sea level, in downtown Eau Claire. That compares with the typical spring risk of less than 5 percent. It set the risk of reaching moderate flood stage (776 feet) at 34 percent, up from 7 percent normally, and the risk of minor flood stage (773 feet) at 62 percent, up from the usual 14 percent.

The forecast showed a 63 percent chance of minor flooding and a 26 percent chance of moderate flooding of the Eau Claire River near Fall Creek, both significantly higher than normal. However, the risk of major flooding on the Eau Claire River was set at the typical level of less than 5 percent.

Major flood stage risk was estimated at 50 percent or more all along the Mississippi River south of St. Paul.

“The amount of snow water equivalent in this snowpack is in the upper 10 percent of historical records over a widespread area ... leading to a high flood potential for many river basins,” states the Weather Service report, which recently increased the Chippewa Valley’s risk level.

“The bottom line is the flood potential has increased because of more snow — the storm expected this weekend and a chance of more snow in the middle of the week,” Weather Service meteorologist Tyler Hasenstein said. “That’s two more chances to add to the already high moisture content.”

A predicted 7 inches of snow this weekend in Eau Claire would bring the season total to 88.8 inches, or just a half inch short of the all-time record of 89.3 inches set in 1996-97.

Preparations underway

Such warnings have local officials studying historical flood levels and putting in place response plans for expected new flooding, all while keeping an eye on the latest forecasts.

“We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best,” said Jeff Pippenger, community services director for the city of Eau Claire, who is designated as the city’s incident commander in the event of serious flooding.

As part of that approach, Pippenger ordered 30,000 sand bags Friday to add to the city’s just-in-case stockpile of 20,000.

The city estimates 32,000 sand bags would be needed in the event water rises high enough that the top of the dike along Forest Street would need to be reinforced to protect the adjacent neighborhood, which historically had many houses fill with floodwater in the springs before the city acquired 50 properties in the area after the so-called “Great Flood” of 1993.

City officials know from experience the impact of flooding when the Chippewa River reaches various levels.

Minor flood stage would lead to the closing of low-lying stretches of the Chippewa River State Trail and parts of the parking areas by Hobbs Ice Arena. Moderate flood stage means much of Owen Park would be covered in water nearly to First Avenue. Reaching major flood stage, which has happened only five times in the last 135 years, would result in water inundating First Avenue, the low side of Haymarket Plaza and the road leading to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

All of the new construction downtown should stay dry even if major flood stage is reached because structures are now required to be built above the 100-year flood elevation of 781.8 feet above sea level, a high water mark that hasn’t been reached since the record flood of 1884, said city engineer David Solberg.

If water rises to a certain level, city crews will attempt to reduce the risk by inflating pneumatic plugs in storm sewer pipes to prevent river water from coming back into the drainage system, Pippenger said.

Eau Claire County Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said officials are planning for worse-than-usual flooding this spring.

“We’re going to have a mess on our hands,” he predicted.

Downstream calm

The latest Weather Service flooding outlook for Durand, a Pepin County community with a history of Chippewa River spring flooding, shows about a one in three chance of hitting major flood stage and a two in three chance of reaching moderate flood stage, both about five times the typical risk. The city has a 95 percent chance of having minor flooding.

Despite the elevated risk, Durand city administrator Scott Rasmussen said most residents are taking a been there, done that approach to the possibility of the river overflowing its banks in the downtown business district.

“It’s kind of business as usual at this point,” Rasmussen said. “People just don’t get too excited about it. It is what it is down here.”

Longtime Durand residents understand the inevitability that spring flooding likely will mean some streets along the river will have to close and businesses backed up to the river will get water in their basements and thus will have to get items that can’t get wet off the floor.

“At this point, nobody is really nervous,” Rasmussen said, noting that officials have no plans to deploy sand bags or take other extraordinary steps to protect property from rising water. “The plan is just to let it run its course and hope for the best. There’s nothing we can do about it is what it comes down to.”

In Eau Claire County, Esh said, residents can take some steps to lower their risk of suffering personal or property damage and the chance of dealing with flooded streets.

To reduce the probability of having neighborhood streets covered in water, he said, residents can help street crews by clearing the area around storm sewer drains, many of which remain covered by several feet of snow.

Esh also advised members of the public to get anything valuable off basement floors, sign up for emergency notifications through the county website and keep a vehicle full of gas and prepared to go on short notice in case of flash flooding.

Thawing out

The timing and severity of spring flooding will be largely dependent on how fast warming begins and how much precipitation is received during the snowmelt period.

“What we have to hope for is moderate temperatures during the day and below freezing temperatures at night,” Pippenger said.

Such an ideal scenario would reduce the flooding risk by bringing about a gradual thaw.

“A slow melt would make a lot of people happy even though I think city personnel are craving warm weather as much as anyone else,” Solberg said.

Significant rain during the snowmelt period would have the opposite effect, especially considering the existing snow covering the ground has a higher-than-usual moisture content and any additional snow accumulation in the spring often is the heavy, wet variety.

“If we get any major rainstorms or a sudden warm-up, it would skew our numbers significantly and could be a very dangerous event,” Esh said, adding that the highest-risk time period for flooding is projected to begin the last week of March and run through mid-March. “If we were to start melting snow soon, with frost still several feet deep, there’s nowhere for all the water to go.”

Off Beat: Sobering reminder

Hearing actor Luke Perry died Monday after suffering a massive stroke took Tammy Tisdale by surprise. He was 52, and she is 53.

A stroke occurs when the blood supply to part of the brain is interrupted or reduced, depriving brain tissue of oxygen and nutrients. Within minutes, brain cells begin to die.

“Every time I hear about someone suffering from or dying of a stroke, I feel so bad for the person and their family,” said Tammy, of Eau Claire.

Perry, best known for his role in “Beverly Hills, 90210,” had been hospitalized since Feb. 27.

The actor’s death is a solemn reminder that a stroke can strike anyone at any age. Just ask Tammy. Seventeen years ago, the mother of three — then 35 — had a stroke.

January 2002

On Jan. 21, 2002, Tammy was sweeping up dust from a window project in her basement when she felt lightheaded. Crawling up the stairs, Tammy laid down on the couch.

The dizziness didn’t go away, her body began to feel tingly, and her right side went numb. She also got a bad headache.

“I knew something was wrong,” said Tammy, whose husband, Jeff, took her to Mayo Clinic Health System’s emergency department, where she immediately threw up.

After she underwent several tests, including a CT scan, which didn’t reveal anything, Tammy was sent home. Doctors thought she was suffering from a migraine.

Once home, her symptoms — dizziness, numbness on her right side and slurred speech — continued. They later returned to the hospital, and Tammy was admitted.

“Stroke never entered my mind on the way to the hospital,” she said. “My mom thought of it instantly, and my husband kind of suspected it,” though.

Thinking through risk factors, they just didn’t seem to fit, Tammy said. Her family had little history of stroke. One of her grandmothers had suffered a stroke, but she was in her late 80s. Tammy had smoked at one time, but she had quit years earlier. Her blood pressure wasn’t high, and she was very active.

Tammy was in the hospital for eight days, and she underwent several tests before her doctors determined she had suffered a stroke.

One of the physicians told her husband, “I have no idea how your wife is still alive,” she recalled. “Everyone was shocked.”

Her neurologist, Dr. Felix Chukwudelunzu, said she suffered from a brain stem stroke, which occurred because of blockage of her basilar artery, one of the arteries that supplies the brain with oxygen-rich blood.

Two factors might have been to blame for Tammy’s stroke. In 2002, Chukwudelunzu said she had an abnormal protein that can create anti-cardiolipin antibodies, which lead to blood clots. In addition, she also had a hole in her heart — known as a patent foramen ovale, or PFO — between the left and right upper chambers of the heart.

Everyone is born with this opening, which resembles a flap. In most people, the flap seals itself after birth. But in others, like Tammy, it doesn’t close completely.

Blood normally flows through the right atrium and into the lungs prior to moving in the left atrium, according to the National Stroke Association. If blood flows straight through the PFO, then it avoids the lungs. The lungs’ job is to rid the blood of debris and break up clots prior to passing through the left atrium of the heart. Without this step, a clot can cross through the PFO and travel up to the brain where it can cause a stroke.

“I just figured my guardian angels were looking out for me,” said Tammy, who went through speech, physical and occupational therapy before she was released from the hospital.

“They wanted to make sure I was stable enough to go home,” said Tammy, recalling having to make a toasted cheese sandwich one day as part of her therapy. “I took a couple of bites, and I had to take a nap. It took everything out of me.”

Once she got out of the hospital, Tammy couldn’t just resume her normal life. Her balance was off for about four months after the stroke, making it hard to walk. She couldn’t put her contact lenses in or pick up her children, and she tired easily.

“It was hard,” Tammy said. “I’ve always been very active and on the go.”

However, she pushed forward, continuing to go to speech and physical therapy. Jeff pitched in and helped around the house, and her co-workers hired a cleaning company to clean her house a couple of times.

After five weeks off, Tammy returned to her job, working a couple of hours each day. It would be eight or nine weeks before she felt like she could return full time and several more months before she felt like she had returned to normal.

Following her stroke, Tammy was on blood-thinning medication for two years. Now, she takes just an aspirin a day. She also eventually had the PFO repaired.

“The doctors don’t think I’ll have another stroke, but I have a higher chance of having one,” she said.

Hoping to minimize risk factors, she continues to eat right, stay active and visit her doctor regularly.

“I don’t know if my guardian angels will be there a second time,” she said.

That said, she encourages anyone experiencing stroke symptoms to seek medical attention immediately.

“Your health is nothing to fool around with,” she said.

Time matters

Stroke is on the rise among younger adults, according to the National Stroke Association. Over the last decade, there was a 44 percent increase in the number of younger Americans hospitalized because of stroke.

“Stroke is more prevalent in the elderly, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen to younger people,” said Chukwudelunzu, who describes younger people as those 55 and under.

That said, younger people don’t always realize their symptoms might mean they are having a stroke and sometimes ignore them, he said.

“They try to explain their symptoms away,” Chukwudelunzu said. “They often think ‘I’m just tired’ or ‘I overdid it.’”

If you suspect yourself or someone else of having a stroke, don’t wait to see if the symptoms go away, said the physician, who specializes in stroke.

Patients who arrive at the emergency room within three hours of their first symptoms often have less disability three months after a stroke than those who received delayed care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The following are signs someone might be having a stroke: He or she has trouble speaking or understanding; paralysis or numbness of the face, arm or leg; trouble seeing in one or both eyes; a sudden, severe headache; and trouble walking.

“It’s better to have it checked out and have it be nothing than have it be something,” Chukwudelunzu said.

Contributed photo  

Flutist Peter Phippen’s most recent recordings include “Seven,” an album he made with Tiit Raid and Ivar Lunde.

As budget deficit balloons, few in Washington seem to care

WASHINGTON (AP) — The federal budget deficit is ballooning on President Donald Trump’s watch and few in Washington seem to care.

And even if they did, the political dynamics that enabled bipartisan deficit-cutting deals decades ago has disappeared, replaced by bitter partisanship and chronic dysfunction.

That’s the reality that will greet Trump’s latest budget, which will promptly be shelved after landing with a thud on Monday. Like previous spending blueprints, Trump’s plan for the 2020 budget year will propose cuts to many domestic programs favored by lawmakers in both parties but leave alone politically popular retirement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.

Washington probably will devote months to wrestling over erasing the last remnants of a failed 2011 budget deal that would otherwise cut core Pentagon operations by $71 billion and domestic agencies and foreign aid by $55 billion. Top lawmakers are pushing for a reprise of three prior deals to use spending cuts or new revenues and prop up additional spending rather than defray deficits that are again approaching $1 trillion.

It’s put deficit hawks in a gloomy mood.

“The president doesn’t care. The leadership of the Democratic Party doesn’t care,” said former Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. “And social media is in stampede mode.”

Trump’s budget arrives as the latest Treasury Department figures show a 77 percent spike in the deficit over the first four months of the budget year, driven by falling revenues and steady growth in spending.

Trump’s 2017 tax cut bears much of the blame, along with sharp increases in spending for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies and the growing federal retirement costs of the baby boom generation. Promises that the tax cut would stir so much economic growth that it would mostly pay for itself have been proved woefully wrong.

Trump’s upcoming budget, however, won’t address any of the main factors behind the growing, intractable deficits that have driven the U.S. debt above $22 trillion. Its most striking proposed cuts — to domestic agency operations — were rejected when tea party Republicans controlled the House, and they face equally grim prospects now that Democrats are in the majority.

Trump has given no indication he’s much interested in the deficit and he’s rejected any idea of curbing Medicare or Social Security, the massive federal retirement programs whose imbalances are the chief deficit drivers.

An administration official said Friday that the president’s plan promises to balance the budget in 15 years. The official was not authorized to publicly discuss specifics about the budget before the document’s official release and spoke on condition of anonymity

‘Out of fashion’

Democrats have witnessed the retirement of a generation of lawmakers who came up in the 1980s and 1990s and negotiated deficit-cutting deals in 1990 and 1993. But those agreements came at significant political cost to both President George H.W. Bush, who lost re-election, and President Bill Clinton, whose party lost control of Congress in 1995.

But the moderate wing of the Democratic Party has withered with the electoral wipeout of “Blue Dog” Democrats at the hands of tea party forces over recent election cycles.

“Concern about the deficit is so woefully out of fashion that it’s hard to even imagine it coming back into fashion,” said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., one of his party’s few remaining deficit hawks. “This is as out of fashion as bell bottoms.”

While in control of the House, Republicans used to generate nonbinding budget blueprints that promised to balance the federal ledger by relying on a controversial plan to eventually transform Medicare into a voucher-like program. But they never pursued follow-up legislation that would actually do it.

Republicans, who seized Congress more than two decades ago promising and ultimately achieving balanced budgets during the Clinton administration, have instead focused on two major rounds of tax cuts during the Trump era and the administration of President George W. Bush in 2001.

Nor are Republicans willing to consider tough deficit-cutting steps such as higher taxes or Pentagon budget cuts. Leading Democratic presidential contenders talk of “Medicare for All” and increasing Social Security benefits instead of curbing them.

“You have to get pretty damn serious about revenue as well as defense spending, and those are two things the Republicans don’t want to bring into the conversation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. “My Democratic friends who talk about expansion of benefits. I’ve told them to ‘get real.’”

Trump has never gone to the mat for his plan to slash domestic spending such as renewable energy programs.

“If Trump can be criticized I think the perception has been that he has not fought for the spending cuts that he’s proposed,” said former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. “There’s no upside to trying to cut anything. There’s no political reward. But if you cut something there’s a lot of political downside.”

Neither is there any reservoir of the political will and bipartisan trust required to take the political heat for the tough steps it would take to rein in deficits. And it’s not like voters are clamoring for action.

“There’s been very little dialogue in the last several years about debt and deficit and how to really be able to address it,” said Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla. “It just never came up” in the 2016 election. “It still doesn’t come up.”

The deficit registered $714 billion during Trump’s first year in office but is projected to hit about $900 billion this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office, which says Trump’s tax cut will add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years.

“One of the short-term goals should be — I know it’s not a lofty goal — stopping things from getting a lot worse. It’s something the Republicans obviously were unable to do. That’s a low bar, but they couldn’t meet a low bar,” said Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.

AP Congressional correspondent Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.