One man was killed and several other motorists were rescued from the roofs of their partially submerged vehicles Monday after flash floods struck parts of west-central Wisconsin.
Eight Baldwin families also had to be evacuated from their homes when floodwaters lapped at their doors after 8 inches of rain pounded the village over about 18 hours from late Sunday afternoon until late Monday morning, said Capt. Jeff Klatt of the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office. The families were taken to a community center.
American Red Cross was helping three families displaced by flooding, two in River Falls and one in Woodville, with temporary housing and basic needs.
The storms, which dropped between 4 and 9 inches of rain over a large swath of west-central Wisconsin, swept through the southern Twin Cities metro area before deluging western Wisconsin.
The region’s highest recorded rainfall totals as of late Monday afternoon were 9 inches in the St. Croix County town of Emerald, about 8 inches in Hammond and Baldwin, and about 7 inches in River Falls and Roberts, according to National Weather Services reports.
Gary J. Parent, 70, of Emerald died after driving onto a flooded section of Highway E in the town of Baldwin where several other motorists were rescued from submerged cars during Monday morning’s rainstorm.
Based on the preliminary investigation and eyewitness statements, the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office concluded that Parent drove his Dodge Grand Caravan westbound on the highway, lost control on the flooded roadway and entered the north ditch. The van was then inundated with water and became totally submerged.
United Fire and Rescue pulled him out of the flooded vehicle and a Baldwin EMS ambulance transported him to Western Wisconsin Health in Baldwin. The county medical examiner pronounced Parent dead at the hospital.
Another Emerald resident, Jeff Warren, was one of the lucky ones who survived a frightening early morning ordeal in the floodwaters.
Warren’s wife, Sheila, said Jeff left to drive to his job in Minnesota at 4:15 a.m. Monday and only got about a block from home when he drove onto what just looked like wet pavement in the driving rainstorm.
“It was still completely dark and he just hit a wall of water,” Sheila said, noting that the water came from an overflowing creek that is normally just a trickle this time of year.
Jeff was able to roll the driver’s side window down, crawl out, climb onto the roof of his vehicle and call his wife.
“He called me and said, ‘I need help. I’m in the river,’ said Sheila, who immediately called 911 and then talked to her stranded husband via cellphone as he waited to be rescued. “At least he was wise enough not to swim. He never would have made it.”
Somerset rescue crews responded and rescued Jeff with a boat in an area that is normally a field.
“He is OK, but that was a close one. We realize it could have gone horribly wrong,” said Sheila, estimating that only about 7 inches of the vehicle’s roof was above water when Jeff was standing on it. “Thank God his car was stable and it wasn’t floating.”
Sheila said the couple have never seen anything like that level of flooding in 25 years of living in their home.
The National Weather Service determined that some west-central Wisconsin communities received the amount of rain seen only once every 10 to 25 years, said meteorologist Tyler Hasenstein of the agency’s office in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
The worst of the thunderstorms occurred between 6 p.m. and about midnight Sunday, although rain continued into Monday, he said.
Dry soil in the region was able absorb quite a bit of water early in the storm but eventually became saturated, causing widespread reports of flash flooding of creeks, urban areas and low-lying areas, Hasenstein said.
Stretches of several roads and bridges were impassable after the storms, Klatt said. Though water levels had mostly returned to near normal by late Monday afternoon, some washed out sections of road still need to be repaired, including U.S. 63 north of Baldwin. Highway 29 near Spring Valley also was temporarily closed, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
“We urge everyone to use extreme caution if you have to travel,” the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office said in a Facebook post. “Be very cautious of submerged roadways in low lying areas and blind corners.”
In the nearby Pierce County village of Ellsworth, officials said rain overwhelmed many culverts and caused localized flooding, including along parts of Highway 10.
Officials urged motorists not to travel through affected areas, attempt to cross flooded roads or drive around barriers.
“If you see water over the road, you never know what’s underneath it,” Hasenstein said. “That’s why our motto is ‘Turn around. Don’t drown.’ “
The Associated Press contributed to this story.