DOUGLAS COUNTY, WIS. – Aggie Jensen was born 70 years ago on the same land where she lives now, and she has never seen the Nemadji River like this.
"Never, ever, ever," Jensen said as the river lapped within 2 feet of her home's foundation Monday afternoon in a rural area south of Superior, Wis.
And no wonder — the home where Aggie and Gordon Jensen live is at least 1,000 feet from the Nemadji's banks. The normally placid river, which typically runs about 4 to 5 feet deep, reached a record depth of more than 30 feet in the wake of the weekend's torrential rains, spilling over its banks and inundating roads throughout southwest Douglas County.
The damage extended into Minnesota, especially Carlton County south of Duluth, where several roads were washed out.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker on Monday declared a state of emergency in Douglas, Ashland, Bayfield, Burnett and Iron counties after thunderstorms beginning Saturday night dumped as much as 10 inches of rain on already saturated ground in western Wisconsin.
The storms and flooding left a large, muddy swath of destruction. Two men died in Wisconsin, damage was estimated in the millions and numerous roads and bridges were washed out.
"Much of the damage is still underwater, and it's too dangerous to put people out there," said Keith Kesler, director of emergency management for Douglas County. "It's been a long couple of days, and we've got a couple more ahead of us."
Damages are expected to be in the millions, mainly for rebuilding washed-out roads and bridges, he said. But the final tally will be awhile in coming, he added.
Aftermath claims 2 lives
One man died in Ashland County after his pickup truck went into a ditch on flooded County Road E near White River, authorities said. Thomas L. Koeper, 75, of Mason, Wis., was found dead 60 feet from his truck. Several other motorists in Wisconsin and Minnesota were rescued from vehicles with no injuries.
James M. Pluff, 55, of Redwood Falls, Minn., died early Sunday when a tree fell on his camper during a severe thunderstorm in Wisconsin, according to the Sawyer County Record. A woman and two children were injured but not critically.
Pluff was on the east side of Lake Chetac.
Meanwhile, an earthen dam holding back water on the Tamarack River failed Monday afternoon. The Radigan Flowage Dam west of Dairyland gave way, leading to flash flooding downstream in southern Douglas and northern Burnett counties in Wisconsin, and in far eastern Pine and Carlton counties in Minnesota, the National Weather Service said.
Authorities said few people live in the affected area and they didn't expect to order any evacuations.
Barriers and "Road Closed" signs were common on the rural byways crisscrossing the valleys of the Nemadji and Black rivers. Scores of roads in the larger disaster area were closed after floodwaters buckled and eroded them.
Janine Dunlap and her son stood alongside County Road A outside Superior on Monday afternoon, peering at the gushing ditch that has trapped their family at home for going on three days.
Runoff from the weekend rains carved a jagged, 10-foot-wide chasm across the end of Dunlap's driveway, a gap too wide and deep to be crossed by any ordinary vehicle. Their basement and garage flooded.
"We never expected this," Dunlap said. "I think it just smacked everything in general."
Not far from Dunlap's home, a major bridge on State Hwy. 35 over the Black River was partly washed out, closing the highway near the entrance to Pattison State Park.
Back at the Jensen residence, Gordon Jensen said he lost nearly $10,000 worth of power tools and generators when the Nemadji flooded his garage.
The Nemadji set a new record of 30.3 feet, according to the National Weather Service, more than 3 feet higher than the previous record set in 2012, when Duluth sustained massive damage from flash flooding after another 10-inch rainstorm.
Jensen said he was pretty calm as he watched it rise, "but I started getting nervous when it went around the house."
In the city of Superior, things were back to normal Monday afternoon after major traffic tie-ups caused by flooding on Hwy. 53. The Nemadji briefly spilled over the highway, said Mayor Jim Paine, but the city's recent investment in stormwater infrastructure took care of the flooding quickly.
It's a different story out in the county, Paine said.
"This is a rough one for Douglas County," he said. "They're going to be working on this for a long time."
Nonetheless, the floods — coming on the heels of a refinery fire six weeks ago that prompted the evacuation of thousands from their homes — have emergency workers and Superior residents looking for a break.
"We're hoping for a nice, long, mild summer," Paine said.