Audrey Willich (center) talks to representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Wisconsin Emergency Management on Tuesday about flood damage to her home at 401 Spring St., Burlington. (Photo by Ed Nadolski)

FEMA, state teams in area to assess damage from floods

By Ed Nadolski

Editor in Chief

City of Burlington Fire Chief Alan Babe called it a tear jerker.

“I get emotional every time we do this,” he said Tuesday morning as he escorted a team of officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Wisconsin Emergency Management to the areas of the city that suffered the worst in the flood of July 12 and 13.

Babe was referring to the personal stories of loss and the sobering images of homes gutted in the wake of the flood that ravaged homes – especially those along the Fox River in the heart of the city.

For Babe, it was the second or third time he had visited some of the homes.

Several of the homes visited remained vacant. Members of the assessment teams peered in windows to see wallboard removed three to four feet high on the main level, indicating significant water infiltration.

Babe and city Building Inspector Gregory Guidry, along with Racine County Emergency Management Director David Maack joined several representatives from the state and federal agencies as they made their rounds on foot and in golf carts in an attempt to get visual confirmation of the damage estimates compiled by the county in the two weeks that followed the flood.


Key to disaster declaration

The information gleaned by the state and federal teams will be key in providing Gov. Scott Walker with the information he needs to determine whether to seek a federal disaster declaration for the state from President Donald Trump, according to Tod Pritchard, emergency preparedness coordinator for Wisconsin Emergency Management.

“We’re going door-to-door to get a sense of the damage and verifying what the county has already reported,” Pritchard said.

However, that assessment goes beyond raw numbers, according to Pritchard.

“What we’re looking for is: How did it change people’s lives? How did affect businesses?” he said.

Dan Shulman, an external affairs specialist for FEMA, said the follow up assessment is key to paving the way for a federal disaster declaration.

Such a declaration, he said, could make the area eligible for aid to local government for repair of public infrastructure that was damaged in the flood as well as grants and loans to individuals who suffered significant losses to real estate and personal property.

“If there’s a declaration down the road, we’ll have the documentation,” Shulman said.

“We know emergency repairs have been made and a lot of work has already been done,” he added. “Now we’re validating all that information.”

The team assessing residential and commercial damage in Burlington was one of six deployed in Racine, Kenosha and Walworth Counties this week. Pritchard said three of the teams are focusing on damage to homes and businesses and three are assessing damage to public infrastructure.


Devastated by the flood

Among the homes the team visited in Burlington Tuesday was Audrey Willich’s at 401 Spring Street.

Willich said she and her late husband moved into the home in 1960 on their fifth wedding anniversary and he ceremoniously carried her over the threshold.

“My husband’s family lived on the property for 125 years,” she said.

This was the first time her home had flooded, Willich added.

The Fox River, which borders the back of the house, was an unwelcome visitor on July 12, rising to about three feet on the main floor of the home.

A waterline can be seen on the exterior of the home and, on the inside, the wallboard has been removed to a height of about three feet. A relatively new wood floor in the living room may be beyond repair.

Now Willich, who is currently living with one of her sons, is wondering what to do with her house.

“They were all born here – so this is home,” she said.


No guarantees

Maack, the county’s emergency management director, said the damage is “probably the worst I’ve seen” in 27 years on the job.

Maack had high praise for Burlington officials.

“The City of Burlington did an excellent job of responding to this disaster,” he said. “The county stepped in to augment their efforts, but it was really driven by the local level.”

Although he’s seen 10 major disaster declarations, Maack said there’s no way to predict whether one will be granted in this instance. The Trump administration is relatively new and doesn’t have an established track record in this area, he added.

“There are no guarantees,” he said.

Pritchard said the face-to-face meetings would go a long way toward providing state and federal officials with the information they need to support a disaster declaration.

While the number of homes and businesses damaged is important, he said, “just as important is the impact on people’s lives and the economy of the community.”