Monday, June 16, 2008

Head Above Water

I think I know what it feels like to be dead now.

Last week was a long one, which would explain the very blatant lack of posts recently. We were pretty busy in the newsroom just trying to keep our heads above water -- pun completely intended.

For those of you who were unaware -- and yes, when we threw a barbecue beer bash Saturday night, we did in fact confirm that there is at least one person in this part of the state who was painfully unaware there was a national-disaster-scale flooding event taking place right out her own back door -- but much of the area I used to work in was under water this weekend. And while I would have loved to do more in-depth coverage of a story that got so much national attention, I would have hated trying to commute to Portage amid the traffic fiasco that resulted from closing the interstate.

Not that the State Patrol had much of a choice. I'll admit, when I heard they were shutting down the main traffic artery between the Twin Cities and Chicago, I-90-94 from Madison to Wisconsin Dells, I at first suspected a state overreaction. Based on some of the calls we got from listeners, I think a lot of people got the same impression.

But when I actually did some live in the field reporting last Friday, I got the chance to take a look at the situation firsthand. I drove up to Portage via Highway 51 and started with a quick tour of the East side of town. I found what I expected -- a lot of standing water on lawns and roads in the lower end of town sandwiched between the Wisconsin River levy and the Fox River headwaters.

The Fox skirts the northeast end of Portage, and that was where I really started to get a feel for the gravity of the situation. The river was inches from overtopping a bridge I drove over as county crews laid preparations to close it off. Accordingly, I didn't spend much time on that side of the bridge before turning back, but I did stop to watch as a resident along Highway 33 dragged possessions across his front yard with an aluminum fishing boat. He didn't seem to be in a talking mood.

But it was the view I got of the interstate that really made an impact. Headed the opposite direction, highway 33 meanders south of Portage along the edge of the Baraboo River Marsh before crossing first Interstate-39 and then Interstate-90-94 just miles after they split from each other. A Columbia County Sheriff's deputy was stationed just prior to the 39 overpass to keep anyone from entering the interstate or going any further down 33, but I told him Mike Babcock had told me I needed to see what was going on down the road, so he let me past.

A note: if you ever need to get anywhere in Columbia County, just tell them Mike Babcock sent you. It's basically bulletproof.

Anyway, I was pretty shocked when I crossed over I-39. Looking out from the bridge, I could see massive pools of water the size of football fields covering each lane. It was kind of unsettling, knowing that I drove over that bit of roadway at least twice daily for the two years I worked in Portage. But if I was shocked there, I was floored when I got to the I-90-94 overpass two miles down the road.

Driving down 33 with water lapping at the road's shoulders the whole way, I had to temper my gusto and slow down, lest that shimmer on the road 100 yards ahead turn out to be actual water rather than heat rising from the pavement. But when I got to the overpass, I had to stop the car, just so I could get out and lean against it. I couldn't believe what my eyes were showing me.

Four lanes of reinforced concrete, the finest modern technology in roadbuilding the free world has to offer, were swamped as far as the eye could see. I kept turning and looking south off the bridge to where the interstate wasn't covered in water, just to reassure myself that what I was viewing was indeed once a familiar sight. It was rattling to realize mother nature can overwhelm something as mighty as an interstate as easily as water running off the table from a spilled glass.

I took a few minutes just to come to grips with what I was seeing, then leaned over the side of the bridge for a closer look. Yup, there was water down there too, and two to three feet deep by the looks of it. I grabbed a stone and chucked it sidearm, only to shake my head when it splashed down below me. This was no mirage.

I heard a bird chirp, and the eeriness of the environment hit me like a bag of sand. I have stood on that overpass several times in the middle of the afternoon, each time to try and assess how best to approach an interstate traffic accident we'd caught wind of on the scanner in the newspaper office. The screaming of the traffic is drowned out only by the roar of every semi-truck that passes, and the resulting din is so overwhelming, casual conversation is next to impossible.

But standing on that overpass Friday, I could hear a bird chirping. I could hear a good deal of water rushing to the West, where the Baraboo was running over 200 yards of Highway 33 five feet deep. I could hear the grass in the marsh to the East shooshing in the wind, I could hear the plip of the pebble I threw in for good measure and I could hear waves breaking against the cement median barrier.

It was probably the first time in 50 years somebody who wasn't blind and deaf could have described that particular intersection of roads as "peaceful," and it gave me the willies. One of my favorite books is Stephen King's "The Stand," and it instilled in me a morbid set of expectations for what the end of the world would be like. That's as close as I hope I ever come to experiencing them.

But I did have time to ponder, in a week crammed full of 25 hours worth of overtime, on my drive back to Madison that afternoon. Northbound traffic on Highway 51 was packed bumper-to-bumper with weekenders trying to navigate backroads that were hit-or-miss when it came to closures, and I watched them from the southbound lane and chuckled, a little bemused. The interstate, like many of mankind's feats, seems mighty until something like last week happens.

Then, all the sudden, everything we can muster seems to pale in comparison to nature's raw fury. A few well-placed, concentrated downbursts of water, and that system we pride ourselves so highly on comes down like a house of cards.

I will say this, having been plugged in and in-studio most of the weekend. After all the well-deserved flack they took during last February's interstate debacle, the Wisconsin State Patrol did a stand-up job making lemonade out of piss in what could easily have escalated into a similar situation. They were always a step ahead of the floodwaters, and when the situation forced them to create detours to the detours to the detours as it did several times, they were unblinkingly decisive. The only fair criticism I've heard leveled is that they cut people loose from the Interstate where it was closed without an established detour, but the logistics of providing directions to thousands of motorists to navigate innumerably varying routes in a minute-by-minute -- pun intended -- fluid situation are staggering. I commend them for their effort and their success.

No comments: