Dam Fails, Homes Wiped Out in Wisconsin Flooding Engineers in Wisconsin are monitoring the state's dams after severe weather caused one dam to collapse. The collapse sent water gushing from a nearly 270-acre lake, washing away houses and a highway.
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Dam Fails, Homes Wiped Out in Wisconsin Flooding

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Dam Fails, Homes Wiped Out in Wisconsin Flooding

Dam Fails, Homes Wiped Out in Wisconsin Flooding

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

People on the East Coast are waking up this morning after four straight days of really hot, really humid weather, capped off in the Northeast by last night's thunderstorms. Here in California, the state could use a good storm. This spring has been the driest on record - so dry, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has declared the first official drought in nearly two decades. In a moment, we'll hear more about the efforts to conserve water in California.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

First, we'll go to the Midwest, where too much rain is the problem. Massive storms have many communities scrambling to contain floods. We're told that emergency crews continue to pile up sandbags in parts of Iowa and Illinois and Michigan. I got a note from my mom this week, saying the cornfields look like lakes in Indiana. And in Wisconsin, storms wiped out a man-made lake in a resort community that's one of the state's top tourist attractions. Shamane Mills of Wisconsin Public Radio has more.

(Soundbite of lapping water)

SHAMANE MILLS: I'm standing on what was Lake Delton. Normally about eight feet deep, it's not even inches high. There's a little trickle of water coming in from a storm sewer, but otherwise it's mud, sand. You can see tree roots clinging to the bottom of what was the lake, fish, some of them still alive, flopping around.

Ms. BETTY SEGELSKI(ph): I'm worried about the fish out there. There's one here in the water, huge, big.

MILLS: Betty Segelski and her husband have vacationed here on Lake Delton in Southwest Wisconsin for the last 30 years. When they arrived from Waukegan, Illinois, today, they found a large hole where the lake used to be. While the dam held tight, there was so much rainwater, the lake's northern bank gave way, taking out a county road, sewer lines and washing away four homes.

While there were no injuries, the community of Lake Delton is hurting. It's lost its namesake. Marion Hendrickson(ph) gazed across the dry lakebed with her two granddaughters as she told them memories of swimming in the lake.

Ms. MARION HENDRICKSON: Complete disaster to have this lake go like that. Nobody ever dreamed it could.

MILLS: Lake Delton is a popular tourist destination. With gas topping $4 a gallon and people looking for vacations closer to home, it's a bad time for it to disappear. The area is part of what's known as the Wisconsin Dells, a region located near towering sandstone cliffs along the Wisconsin River. There's gambling, arcades and family entertainment here. One of the biggest attractions is the Tommy Bartlett Water-ski Show, which Arlington Heights resident Matt Schwartz(ph) brought his spouse and three kids across state lines to see.

Mr. MATT SCHWARTZ (Lake Delton, Wisconsin): I went to it when I was a kid, and you know, wanted to see it, but it didn't quite work out too well because of the storms.

MILLS: So Schwartz says his family stuck around the hotel and went swimming.

(Soundbite of splashing, shouting)

MILLS: Facing a disappearing lake, a lot of families headed to indoor pools. There are plenty to chose from. Wisconsin Dells bills itself as the water park capital of the world. The man-made lake was built as a recreational area in the 1930s. Village Trustee Tom Diehl says it generates about $40 million a year in revenue. Diehl runs the Tommy Bartlett Show, which had to cancel its water-ski acts.

Mr. TOM DIEHL (Director, Tommy Bartlett Show): Lake Delton was an integral part of the tourism economy here. Unfortunately, an awful lot of very, very nice, good people who have worked all their lives for their business are going to be suffering because of this.

MILLS: Bertha Bochenczak is one them. She and her husband own The Thunderbird, a small resort with only eight lakeside rentals. They're not really lakeside anymore. Still, she's grateful no one was hurt.

Ms. BERTHA BOCHENCZAK (Co-owner, The Thunderbird, Lake Delton, Wisconsin): We didn't lose our property like the people over there that lost their homes. That is devastating.

MILLS: Along with property destruction, there's damage to a tourist season which was just beginning, but it's going to take some time to refill this 245-acre lake. State engineers say it won't really be Lake Delton again until next spring. For NPR News, I'm Shamane Mills.

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