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Saxon Harbor struggles to rebuild from deadly flood in 2016

It has been 14 months since the night of the Saxon Harbor flood, and they're still waiting to rebuild. Iron County A, the two-lane blacktop road that winds around the hills to Lake Superior from Highway 122, is still washed out; crews built a temporary bridge and gravel lane on the road to allow cars to reach a shoreline parking lot, boat ramp and a few nearby homes.  (Keith Uhlig//The Wausau Daily Herald via AP)

It has been 14 months since the night of the Saxon Harbor flood, and they’re still waiting to rebuild. Iron County A, the two-lane blacktop road that winds around the hills to Lake Superior from Highway 122, is still washed out. Crews built a temporary bridge and gravel lane on the road to allow cars to reach a shoreline parking lot, boat ramp and a few nearby homes. (Keith Uhlig//The Wausau Daily Herald via AP)

Wausau Daily Herald

SAXON HARBOR, Wis. (AP) — The sky darkened early here on the evening of July 11, 2016, and the deluge started about 8 p.m.

That’s the way Bill and Grace Hines remember it, according to a report by the USA Today Network-Wisconsin. For 40 years, the couple had owned the bar and grill Harbor Lights in Saxon Harbor, a marina and campground about 20 miles northwest of Hurley.

Harbor Lights is perched on a hill that declines into the south shore of Lake Superior. The harbor itself is shaped like a bowl and surrounded by hills and red-clay cliffs rising above the lake.

Bill and Grace watched the storm from behind the bar through picture windows that overlook the bottom of the bowl. Sheets of water fell. This storm was different from any they had witnessed before.

“The creek was coming up fast,” Bill remembers. “I knew there would be trouble when I saw a full-grown tree get washed down the creek, standing up.”

They stood transfixed as Saxon Harbor filled with water that rose and eddied as if it were boiling. Boats were buffeted in their slips, bucking up and down.

Because the storm had cut off electrical service to Harbor Lights, the only thing illuminating the scene were frequent flashes of lightning.

“We saw a sailboat sitting on the road,” Bill said. “Then it disappeared.”

They have been through many Lake Superior storms, so they weren’t exactly scared.

“I think it was more like surreal,” Grace said. “(The rain) just wouldn’t go away.”

Officials say the storm dumped 11 to 14 inches of rain on a wide swath of Wisconsin’s Northwoods in just a few hours. Before it ended, the floods would kill three people, including an assistant fire chief who was driving to Saxon Harbor to check on people camping there.

Now, fourteen months after that night, when they look out their restaurant’s picture windows, they still feel a sense of sadness and loss. Over the course of four decades, the couple had played big roles in the construction and improvement of the harbor. For years, their business and social lives had centered on the harbor. Now, not only have they partly lost something once essential to their livelihood, but they find themselves missing the bustle of the campground and harbor and friends they made over the years.

To be sure, the $10 million in damage to Saxon Harbor is far less than the estimated $150 billion worth of destruction that was wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida over the past month. But such comparisons mean little to the people who live and work in this small northern Wisconsin enclave.

Ugly reminders of the destruction still abound. Electrical wires sprout from the ground. Rusted pipes sprawl on dry land. A ragged piece of culvert sits on a pile of rocks. A twisted pier is half sunk in the harbor’s water.

Iron County A, the two-lane blacktop road that winds around the hills to Lake Superior from Highway 122, is still washed out; to give cars a way of getting to a shoreline parking lot, boat ramp and a few nearby homes, crews have built a temporary bridge and gravel lane.

Officials are meanwhile working behind the scenes on plans to rebuild and improve the harbor. Bill and Grace do their best to keep their business open as the bureaucratic gears grind away. They eke out a living by serving the smaller crowds who show up for the bar’s Friday night fish fry and other specials.

Next summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin dredging operations that will deepen and open the mouth of the harbor. Iron County will oversee other dredging work, as well as the reconstruction of the piers. Plans now call for the harbor to be reopened in the spring of 2019.

In the meantime, Bill and Grace have little choice but to wait.

It was a strange storm.

Usually when rain pours down on the south shore of Superior, the wind howls. That night, though, the only roar that Bill and Grace heard came not from outdoor gusts, but rather thunder and water pouring out of the sky and down the hill into Oronto Creek.

Eric Peterson, forest administrator for Iron County and the man who oversees Saxon Harbor, was at his home in Ironwood, Michigan, where it rained only a few inches. It wasn’t until he heard from his aunt in Marquette, Mich., who called to ask if he was all right, that he began to form an inkling of what was happening dozens of miles away.

His half-formed notion that there might be trouble afoot grew into certainty when he was told by his office manager, who lives in Saxon, a few miles south of Saxon Harbor, that there were road washouts. Peterson climbed in his truck and drove to Saxon Harbor as county highway crews frantically worked to make the roads driveable again.

He made it to Saxon Harbor around 10:30 in the morning on July 12. As he drove slowly down a steep hill toward the lake, he saw boats beached along the Lake Superior shore. They were supposed to be in the marina.

The flood had destroyed Saxon Harbor and damaged or sank more than 85 boats. Those that Peterson saw had been blown out of the harbor. The wind had taken them to the west and then onto the shore.

The marina’s piers were splintered and torn up; sidewalks that led to the slips had been bashed to pieces. Oronto Creek, ordinarily not much bigger than a drainage ditch in a farm field, had gouged out a canyon behind Harbor Lights in a single night. Its bed had been moved from the force of the deluge. Most of the campground had been washed away.

Iron County A, the second road leading to the harbor, was disintegrated. A bridge that had once crossed the creek was surrounded by trees, rocks and silt. Because clay-dirt silt had been washed out of the surrounding hills, the water in the harbor was the color of hot chocolate.

A brand new Ford F-150 pickup truck, which had been parked on a lot near the boat slips, had been washed into the lake. It wouldn’t be found until October.

The storm killed three people, including Mitch Koski, 56, assistant fire chief and former mayor in Montreal, a small Wisconsin town near Hurley. Koski was driving his pickup to Saxon Harbor to check on people and property there when surging water had swept the it off the road.

Bill Hines saw Koski try to drive to the harbor and watched the taillights from the truck disappear from the road. Bill and his granddaughter went outside to an open patch of high ground to see if they could find the truck or Koski. There was no sign of either.

In Bayfield County, Delmar Johnson, 84, of Tower Lakes, Illinois, died when the vehicle he was driving submerged in a flooded ditch. His wife was saved by a firefighter, who pulled the woman from the vehicle. The firefighter dove back in for Johnson but could not resuscitate him. A few days after the storm, a third victim was found in Ashland County: Elmer Lippo, 82. He was a supervisor in the town of Marengo and was found in his pickup in the flooded waters of Marengo River.

Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency in eight Northwoods counties: Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett, Douglas, Iron, Price, Sawyer and Washburn.

All told, the storm caused about $26.2 million worth of damage, and “$14 million of it is here in Iron County,” Peterson said.

Most of the destruction in Iron County occurred at Saxon Harbor. It’s the low point of a 17-square-mile watershed; all the water from that area thus drains into Lake Superior at that spot.

“It’s like a funnel,” Peterson said. “And it all flushed out here.”

It will cost about $10 million to restore Saxon Harbor’s infrastructure, Peterson said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay 75 percent of those costs. The Wisconsin Emergency Management Agency will pay 12.5 percent, and Iron County will pick up the remaining 12.5 percent.

Peterson said he and other Iron County officials are trying to secure grant money to help pay for the county’s share.

Peterson has been steeped in the bureaucracy of natural disaster cleanup, not exactly the type of work he thought he would be doing as a county forester.

“I’ve learned so many things that I didn’t want to learn about,” he said with a chuckle.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the sun shone and the breeze blew in Saxon Harbor. Small waves were carried to the harbor’s shore by a brisk wind.

Peter Heilskov, 25, and Crystal Paradowski, 24, of Madison, stopped at spot on their way to a weekend in Bayfield. Peter’s parents used to bring him to Saxon Harbor when he was boy. They weren’t boaters or campers, but they loved the long beach that stretched west of the harbor entrance.

“That beach was endless,” Peter said.

His parents told him about the flooding and the destruction.

“I wanted to see it,” he said.

He and Crystal tried walking to the beach, but eventually decided against hiking through the wood debris that remained washed up on the shore.

Peter looked at the washed-out marina and a spot where a playground had once stood. “It sucks,” he said.

Before the flood, Saxon Harbor had been a bustling place. On a good summer weekend, “2,000 people would come through here,” Peterson said.

Between camping and docking fees, Saxon Harbor earned $130,000 annually in revenue. Its destruction has thus been a blow to a county with only about 5,700 people, according to a 2016 U.S. Census estimate.

For those who love Saxon Harbor, there’s a mystique to the place. Bill and Grace Hines said it comes from the sense of community that has grown up among people who live in the area: the boaters and the campers.

“People identify with (Saxon Harbor) and adopt it,” Grace said.

“There’s a different culture here,” Bill said. “Everybody has got to help everybody.”

Once people experience that kind of Saxon Harbor spirit, it tends to stick with them.

Bill and Grace say that many people, like Peter, have come to Saxon Harbor after the flood to see for themselves what had happened. They’ll stop for a drink or a meal at Harbor Lights.

“They’ll sit at the bar and look out and the question they always ask is, ‘What are you going to do, Grace? What are you going to do, Bill?” Bill said.

Their answer is that they’re doing their best to keep Harbor Lights open and to stick it out, if for nothing else, in order to see the rebirth of Saxon Harbor.

“That’s what you do,” Bill said. “You hang in there, I guess.”

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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