Running on Empty

On June 9, 2008, Lake Delton disappeared, leaving businesses badly bruised and a billion-dollar tourism industry in flux. A year later, the water has returned, a hopeful sign that the Wisconsin Dells is back in action.

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Perception Trumps Reality

On a crisp October day four months after the breach, Tom Diehl, the owner of the iconic Tommy Bartlett Show, slides into the front seat of a Chicago taxicab. When the cabby asks where he’s from and Diehl answers Wisconsin Dells, the driver says he’d heard the whole town was closed last summer.

“I sure hope you can reopen next year,” he said.

It was the same thing Diehl had been hearing from people everywhere—in Illinois, in Minnesota, even throughout Wisconsin—but the truth was Tommy Bartlett’s had reopened less than a week after the storms. The Original Ducks, those famous land and sea hybrid vehicles that cut through Lake Delton as part of the regular tour, had been closed only one day—and they’d spent the rest of that week rescuing more than a hundred Baraboo residents when their river overtook them. Nearly a hundred roads across Wisconsin were closed due to flooding that summer, but in the Dells only Highway A had washed away, where Lake Delton had broken through that four-hundred-foot swath and emptied itself into the Wisconsin River.

The Dells had never been closed, but all anyone saw on the news was the heartbreaking image of those five houses, a couple elegantly slipping, others cracking cleanly in half like eggs and dropping shell-side up into the rapids. People all over the country saw this same footage over and over and over again. In large part because of this perception, the Tommy Bartlett show lost ninety percent of its revenue that summer. All told, Lake Delton business owners lost $25 million in revenue, according to the 2008 FEMA report. They were all open. There just was no lake.

Hope Floats

In addition to his businesses, Diehl also has nearly twenty years on the Lake Delton Village Board, and with a billion-dollar tourism industry he has plenty of experience at the state capitol. When disaster struck, Diehl knew how to get to work. It was a battle with two fronts—the actual dirty work of rebuilding, and the more nebulous job of repairing the Dells’ public image.

Lake Delton business owners convened regular meetings, where Diehl told them the goal was to not let a natural disaster become an economic disaster. Soon after Lake Delton disappeared, Governor Doyle flew into the area to hold a press conference announcing that a one-time, $250,000 grant was available for communities in southern Wisconsin affected by the flooding—each could apply for up to $25,000. Kelli Trumble, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department Tourism and a Dells native, launched hard-hitting campaigns in markets like Minnesota and Illinois, as well as throughout Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau dipped into its own emergency fund and spent half a million dollars convincing people that the Dells was, and had always been, open. State and county agencies cleaned the river and made improvements to Lake Delton Dam that increased its capacity by 214 percent, more than enough to accommodate thousand-year flood levels.

Tom Holtz and Rich Kawalec at Rhapsody Resort and Spa on Lake Delton, which lost $80,000 in revenue the first week alone, organized 385 volunteers to clean up the lake that summer, picking debris and artifacts (including four guns) from the abandoned muck. Dozens of area businesses and organizations held fundraisers. Nearly every downtown attraction participated in a promotion in which Lake Delton business owners could pass fifty percent savings on to their guests, if they would only come and stay. Local banks reached out to their patrons and told them not to worry about their business loans just yet. Many called it an unprecedented collaboration between local and state government, between the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation and all the afflicted business owners. It didn’t take long for the residents of Lake Delton to realize that the biggest thing they were all building was hope.

Road to Recovery

Construction crews worked at the breach site round the clock. Work on Lake Delton, on Highway A and on the area dams was rapid and consistent. In November they lifted the Mirror Lake Dam gates and allowed some water back into Lake Delton, just enough to start a carp eradication program, the beginnings of the Lake Delton Fisheries Restoration Project.

By December 1, construction on Highway A was completed, and fortifications to the dam were nearly finished. Locals drove up and down the reopened road in celebration. That December they closed the Lake Delton Dam gates and allowed about eight feet of water to fill Lake Delton, just enough to bolster hope throughout the winter.

On April 3, the gates on the newly refurbished Lake Delton Dam were closed and the rest of the filling commenced, creating a cleaner, bigger, stronger lake. By spring break, the indoor water parks on the edge of town were packed, a historically reliable predictor of summer sales. Not a single Lake Delton business went under; they all survived. True to form, most of the business owners are predicting a banner year for 2009 because, here in the Dells, the show always goes on.

Like A Bad Dream

For about a week after the breach, Steve and Kathy Zowin walk around in a daze. It’s kind of like you just lost someone you love. You’ll be doing something you’ve done a hundred times before and suddenly it hits you: It’s still true. You walk past the window you’ve walked past a thousand times before and you do a double take because the lake’s not there anymore and for a second you’d forgotten. Some days the phone rings off the hook, people you haven’t talked to in years, or reporters, or the rare customer who doesn’t know. Other days it doesn’t ring at all, and this silence screams the loudest because it means no business.

Eventually, though, you snap out of it. Bills are piling up and you have to figure out how you’re going to survive. You roll up your sleeves, and you get to work. Kathy and Steve start brainstorming, and before long they’re busy again. Steve is one of the first in town to take FEMA up on its Small Business Administration economic injury loan, and though it’s a blow, essentially the second mortgage they’d always avoided, it’s also a lifeline. They beef up business at their Mirror Lake location. They take their parasailing business thirty miles away, up to Castle Rock Lake in Mauston. They decide that in the summer of 2009 when the lake comes back, they’ll start a water taxi business, such that in the evening hours you can have the twenty-seven-foot Luxurious Badboy pick you up from your Lake Delton resort and take you in style to the Tommy Bartlett show or to dine lakeside at Ravinia Bay Restaurant or Port Vista Bar and Grill. They make a business that summer out of boat removal, picking the sixty or so still left in the mud of Lake Delton. They lay off half their staff, including their youngest son, and it hurts, but they survive.

Meanwhile, the support of their community is tremendous. Local restaurants like MooseJaw Pizza and Culver’s give them hundreds of dollars’ worth of free meals. Their competitor at Ferry Lake and Marina tells them to bring a pontoon boat down, that he’ll put a sign on it and try to sell it for them. Neighbors wander in and buy T-shirts, heavily discounted tubes and wakeboards, anything they can to give the Zowins some return on their inventory.

And something inside the Zowins changes, too. They’ve always appreciated their customers, but it’s different now, so much more intense. Kathy has this urgent need to be the face that greets the customer, to answer every phone call, to let each and every person who graces their doorstep with business know that it’s exactly that: grace.

The best part of all comes on that day in April when the officials finally close those gates, and the Zowins watch their lake come back to life an inch at a time. By late spring, less than one year after the rains and the flooding and the breach and the loss, Lake Delton looks like nothing ever happened. Like the past year was just a terrible, terrible dream. Outside the window, the one Kathy and Steve have walked past a thousand times in thirty years, the water is back. The creek out front once again feeds the lake and it, like life, flows on.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.

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