Walworth County Government Today: Flooding highlights emergency response

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Dave Bretl | July 31, 2017

Our county is still recovering from the heavy rain that fell July 11-12. Rainfall of up to eight inches shut down highways and flooded homes. Virtually every part of the county experienced some type of damage. Some areas, particularly those around the town of Lyons, were hit especially hard. Racine and Kenosha Counties suffered significant damage as well.

Our Sheriff's Office and Public Works Department got into action early. The first priority was life safety of residents as well as the travelling public. Traffic control was established due to numerous highways and roads being impassable as a result of floodwaters. 

Fortunately, no fatalities were reported as a result of the storm; however, in some cases, infrastructure was damaged and hundreds of homeowners experienced flooding.

On July 13, I drove around the county with Sheriff Picknell. Most of the water had receded and many roads were re-opened. I would have said that things had returned back to normal had we not stopped and talked with residents whose homes and businesses had been underwater. For them, the process of recovery had just begun.

The county's emergency government function is under the Sheriff's Office Communications Division, which is led by Captain Jamie Green. Lieutenant John Ennis serves as the county's Emergency Management Director, and Captain Green serves as Lieutenant Ennis's back-up. When I first started with the county, emergency government was located in our Health and Human Services department. I encouraged Dave Graves, our Sheriff at the time, to take on the job. Law enforcement seems to be involved in most emergencies that take place anyway, and adding another department and chain of command seemed like it would make a crisis situation even more confusing. One of the important jobs of the Emergency Management Director is to serve as a liaison between our county and the State. The Wisconsin Division of Emergency Management has resources and expertise to assist local governments dealing with natural disasters. Folks from that office have been spending time in our county to assist in the recovery process.

Our county declared a state of emergency on July 12. I don't recall ever having done that in my tenure with the county so we had to break out our ordinance book to make sure we were doing it correctly. Our county board chairperson, Nancy Russell, has the authority to make the declaration subject to ratification by our county board. Our board did just that in a special meeting on Friday, July 14.  Governor Walker declared a state of emergency for Racine, Walworth and Kenosha Counties.

Our state of emergency is a one-size-fits-all declaration that provides the county board chair with significant power to act unilaterally in the time of crisis. We made major revisions to the ordinance following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, including establishing a succession plan for our chair in the event he or she is incapacitated or unable to serve. Our board vice chair followed by the chair of the executive, finance, and public works committees has the authority to declare a state of emergency. An emergency declaration is often a requirement for receiving state and federal disaster assistance.

At this point, our Sheriff's Office is compiling a list of damages to both public and private property. Each town and municipality is responsible for assessing damage to its infrastructure as a result of the flooding and providing an estimate regarding the cost to repair or replace it. That is a big job, especially in towns that don't have a large workforce. The Sheriff has also been working with individual homeowners to inventory their losses. All of this information will be reported to state and federal officials, who will determine what, if any, assistance will be available to the county. A question that is frequently asked by homeowners is whether federal or state money will be available to offset their personal losses. Many standard homeowners' policies exclude flood damage from coverage. At the time of this writing, that answer is not clear. The most important action that we can take right now is to provide a complete and accurate list of the private and public damage that has occurred. Officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will be visiting our county in the upcoming weeks to make that determination.

I can sympathize with homeowners who experienced flooded basements, and worse. Twenty years ago, I had two feet of water in my basement as the result of heavy rains; it was a messy and demoralizing experience. There is not much that can be done with furniture, paperwork and belongings that have been sitting in water. Big-ticket items like furnaces and electrical services often need to be replaced. In rural areas, wells and septic systems may be compromised as well.  

One warning that I do want to pass along is to be on the lookout for unscrupulous contractors that may try to take advantage of the situation. The Sheriff's Office recommends using trusted, local firms to perform repairs and to be especially wary of transient contractors who approach you first. The State has a consumer protection hotline that you can call to find out about complaints about a particular business. That number is (800) 422-7128.

I would encourage homeowners who have suffered flood damage to periodically check out the Sheriff's webpage, http://www.co.walworth.wi.us/Sheriffs%20Office/Sheriff/, for the latest information and press releases.

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