Wisconsin Harbor Town Struggles to Rebuild From Deadly, Costly 2016 Flood

By KEITH UHLIG, Wausau Daily Herald | October 6, 2017

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, USA Today Network-Wisconsin reported. For 40 years, the couple has owned Harbor Lights, the bar and grill and informal clubhouse of Saxon Harbor, a 91-slip marina and campground about 20 miles northwest of Hurley.

Harbor Lights is perched on the 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 through the picture windows behind the bar, which overlook the bottom of the bowl. Sheets of water fell. This storm was different from any they had experienced 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 watched Saxon Harbor fill with water that rose and eddied as if it were boiling. Boats were buffeted in their slips, bucking up and down. The electricity to Harbor Lights cut off, but the scene was illuminated by near constant 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 that night swamped a wide swath of Wisconsin’s Northwoods with 11 to 14 inches of rain in just a few hours. The floods would kill three people, including an assistant fire chief who was driving to Saxon Harbor to check on people camping there.

The next day, the tableau of destruction shocked Bill and Grace. Fourteen months after that night, when they look out the picture windows, they still feel that sadness and loss. They were key players in building and improving the harbor over four decades. It was the center of their business and social lives. Not only has their livelihood suffered, but they miss the bustle of the campground and harbor and the friends they made over the years.

The $10 million in damage to Saxon Harbor pales compared with the estimated $150 billion worth of destruction wrought by hurricanes Harvey and Irma in Texas and Florida over the past month. But for the people who live and work in this small northern Wisconsin enclave, the disaster’s effects have been dramatic and long-lasting.

It has been 14 months since the night of the Saxon Harbor flood, and they’re still waiting to rebuild.

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; 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.

Officials are working behind the scenes to make 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 by on 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 also will oversee dredging work and then the rebuilding of the piers. Plans now call for the harbor to reopen as a haven for boats in spring of 2019.

Meanwhile, Bill and Grace wait.

It was a weird storm.

Usually when it storms on the south shore of Superior, the wind howls. That night the roar Bill and Grace heard came only from 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 that night in Ironwood, Michigan. It rained only a few inches there, and he had no clue what was happening dozens of miles away until his aunt in Marquette, Michigan, called to ask if he was OK.

He knew for sure there was trouble when his office manager, who lives in Saxon, a few miles south of Saxon Harbor, called and told him about the road washouts. Peterson climbed in his truck and drove to Saxon Harbor as county highway crews frantically worked to restore the roads to driveable condition.

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

The flood destroyed Saxon Harbor and damaged or sank more than 85 boats. The boats Peterson saw were blown out of the harbor. The wind blew them west and then onto the shore.

The marina’s piers were splintered and torn up; the sidewalks that led to the slips were bashed to pieces. Oronto Creek, ordinarily not much bigger than a farm field drainage ditch, gouged out a canyon behind Harbor Lights in a single night. Its bed was moved from the force of the deluge. The creek now meanders about 50 yards north of its original path. Most of the campground was washed away.

Iron County A, the second road leading to the harbor, was disintegrated. The bridge that once crossed the creek was surrounded by washed-out trees, rocks and silt. The water of the harbor was the color of hot chocolate from the clay-dirt silt washed out of the surrounding hills. The water along Lake Superior’s shoreline took on the color of weak coffee.

A brand new Ford F-150 pickup truck, which had been parked on a lot near the boat slips, was 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 swept the truck off the road.

Bill Hines saw Koski attempt 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, according to a July 14, 2016, Associated Press story. A few days after the storm, a third victim was found in Ashland County: Elmer Lippo, 82. He was a supervisor for 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, so all the water from that area 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, or about $1.25 million each.

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

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers portion of the project is not factored into those overall costs, Peterson said. That portion, picked up entirely by the federal government, will cost an additional $1.4 million. The corps will dredge near the lake to allow boats caught in storms to use the harbor as an emergency refuge.

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.

Bill and Grace Hines, and Peterson, watched hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit Texas and Florida, and worried for the people there. They can’t help but think of massive rebuilding efforts that will be required to recover.

It will take time and patience, Peterson said. Bill and Grace say they can’t imagine the immensity of those storms, the idea of the Saxon Harbor flood many times over, and in urban areas.

It was sunny and breezy at Saxon Harbor on a recent Friday afternoon. A brisk wind pushed small waves onto the shore.

Peter Heilskov, 25, and Crystal Paradowski, 24, of Madison checked out the place 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 they didn’t feel like hiking through all the wood debris that washed up on the shore after the storm.

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

Before the flood, Saxon Harbor was 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. The two years of zero income (this year and next) represents significant financial hit for 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 organic sense of community that sprouted 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.”

It had to be that way, he said, because Saxon Harbor has its own kind of isolation that meant people who stayed there had to be both self-sufficient and willing to lend a neighbor a hand.

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 down to Saxon Harbor after the flood to see for themselves what 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 stick it out, if for nothing else, to see the rebirth of Saxon Harbor.

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

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.