Gays Mills church basement flooded, says priest
By Franz Klein
GAYS MILLS, Wis. – Declaring [La Crosse,] Vernon and Crawford counties disaster areas, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle spent Monday surveying damage caused by the still-falling rain and accompanying floodwaters. Governor Tim Pawlently also declared six counties in southeastern Minnesota disaster areas.
As of Monday, the waters have been blamed for six deaths in Minnesota as houses slid down hillsides and flash-floodwaters floated cars off washed-out highways and derailed a train near La Crosse.
According to National Weather Service representative Todd Shea, 17 inches of rain were unofficially recorded in Witoka, Minn., where a husband and wife died when they were caught in rising waters on Highway 17. Another couple died in nearby Stockton, Minn., when their car was swept off Highway 23 by a flash flood; that town’s residents were evacuated to St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.
Twelve inches were recorded in some places in La Crosse where residents on Goose Island were evacuated to the city’s Central High School. 11.75” of rain were officially recorded to the south in Stoddard as a house slid onto Highway 35 early Sunday morning.
“I don’t think we have anything in memory where we can recall so many mudslides,” said Shea. “I think that’s because of the intensity of the rain Saturday night.”
Following Saturday night’s deluge, the Kickapoo River’s gauge at Gays Mills recorded a record crest of 21.5 feet Sunday. More than 75 homes were flooded in that village, leading the Federal Emergency Management Agency to order its residents evacuated.
Father Robert Chukwu, newly appointed parochial administrator at St. Mary’s Parish there, refused to evacuate Sunday and answered the phone at the rectory as he waited for parishioners to get him out Monday morning.
“I’m going to leave this morning because they say there will be more rain,” he told The Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, where his parish is located. “Some of my parishioners are coming to get me. I’m planning to empty the tabernacle and get away with the Sacrament. That’s just as much as I will be able to take away.”
Although the telephone was still working, Father Chukwu said electricity and natural gas had been off since early Sunday morning. He cancelled his Sunday Masses; and yesterday he was blocked by rising floodwaters on the way to his second parish, St. Philip’s in Rolling Ground.
“People are in boats in the streets, so it’s really bad,” he said. “Some cars are submerged, so that gives you an idea of the water. The people at the senior citizen center were evacuated yesterday.”
He said there are four to five feet of water in the church basement; if the rain didn’t stop, the upper floor of the church would soon be flooded. “We’re praying it doesn’t rain anymore,” he said.
Sister Donna Webber, FSPA, pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Church farther south in Wauzeka, said their church was unaffected by the floodwaters as of Monday, though “there isn’t a person here who doesn’t have water in the basement.”
“The lower part of our village definitely has creeping water,” she said on the town, which is on the Wisconsin River about 20 miles north of where it meets the Mississippi. “But we’re fine when it comes to survival.”
Sister Donna added that many churches in the area, such as Sacred Heart’s sister parish, St. Patrick in Seneca, are built on higher ground and are therefore safe from the waters.
Paula Cina, secretary at St. Mary’s in Viroqua, where residents below the Raaum Dam and near Bishop’s Creek were evacuated, confirmed this. But she added that large sections of highways in the valleys have been washed away leading to many road closures throughout the region.
Shea said the region may not have seen the last of the rain.“We have to watch these rain chances until Friday at least and hope that nothing stalls in the area and drops any tremendous amounts,” he said. “If we get some additional rain, we could end up with more mudslides and flash floods.”