PRAIRIE DU CHIEN, Wis. – The Mississippi River took weeks before spilling its banks and flooding hundreds of homes in western Wisconsin. People living in river towns say it'll take a few more weeks for things to return to normal.
The river started to recede in Wisconsin over the weekend after reaching its crest early Saturday in the southern corner of the state.
Ruth Mertens spent the weekend reading a book in a lawn chair near her front step, the only dry spot in her yard in Prairie du Chien, a town of about 6,000 people 85 miles west of Madison. Water covered the garage behind the house to the top of its window and filled the basement.
"What else can you do?" she said Sunday night as she ate a dinner brought to her by American Red Cross volunteers.
The river had dropped to 23.0 feet Monday morning in Prairie du Chien but still stood 7 feet above flood level. It crested at 23.75 feet Saturday.
Scattered showers that passed over the area early Sunday dropped at most a quarter inch, and a little more fell late Sunday and early Monday across parts of western Wisconsin.
Thunderstorms expected over the next few days in Minnesota could push river levels up an inch of two north of La Crosse by the end of the week, National Weather Service meteorologist Mike Nelson said.
The river crested Wednesday in La Crosse at 16.5 feet, 4.5 feet above flood stage. It had dropped to 15.5feet by Monday morning.
Lori Getter, a spokeswoman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said emergency workers were watching the skies — and hoping the dikes hold up.
"We just don't need any more bad weather. We just need Mother Nature to cooperate," she said.
Rain showers would not make the river rise but could be expected to slow the river's retreat, said Al Blenco, emergency dispatch supervisor in La Crosse County.
"It would slow down our healing process," he said.
By Sunday evening, people living at the river's farthest reaches in the La Crosse area pumped the few inches of water out of their basements, said Keith Alvey, Red Cross operations director.
Most others still must wait days, or perhaps weeks, for the river to recede before starting the cleanup process.
"We don't expect it to go down in a hurry," said Steve Braun, Grant County emergency management coordinator.
The Mississippi reached its highest point late Friday in the Grant County community of Cassville, then stayed at almost the same level, falling only slightly since then, he said.
Cassville, a town of 1,100 people just south of Prairie du Chien, brought in extra pumps Sunday from the Army Corps of Engineers to control water creeping toward its main street and to return water from its backed-up sewers to the river.
"The pumping works just fine until it rains. If it rains, there's nothing anybody can do. One inch we could probably handle, two to three inches could be tough," Braun said.
The flood waters created a foot-and-a-half wide sinkhole in Ernie Fury's garden, sending muddy water into his basement.
"That's my garden in there," he said, pointing to the muddy mess that supported floating tools and spare parts.
He had escaped the flooding until the hole caved in Sunday. He didn't have time to move his furnace and water heater, and he wasn't sure if his basement walls held.
Mark Adrian of Cassville pumped an extra foot of water out of his basement in anticipation of more rain. He said he had kept about 2 feet of water so his basement wouldn't cave in as one down the street did.
"So far, so good," he said with fingers crossed.
Margaret Scott said she's not sure why the inside of her Prairie du Chien home escaped the flood water, which surrounded her house, stood several feet deep in her back yard and left a dead fish on the sidewalk. During the 1965 flood, water seeped through seams in the windows, she said.
"We're living on a tiny island right now," she said. "We feel like we're really blessed."
"We made it by the skin of our teeth," her son Gary said.