Back in business: 10 years after the Lake Delton dam breach - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Back in business: 10 years after the Lake Delton dam breach

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LAKE DELTON (WKOW) -- As we get ready for Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to summer, people in one of Wisconsin's biggest tourist towns are remembering one of their most difficult days.

This summer marks 10 years since heavy rains pushed Lake Delton's dam to its limit. The Dells area got nearly two feet of rain over just a few days. Early in the morning on June 9, 2008, the lake rose high enough to break the dam, sending the entire lake pouring into the Wisconsin River. 

"To lose the body of water in an hour and a half -- 700 million gallons of water went to the Wisconsin River -- was devastating," said Tom Diehl, president and co-owner of The Tommy Bartlett Show. 

Diehl stood on the shore at the show's stage, watching helplessly. 

"When you know it's coming and there's nothing you can do about it, mother nature's very strong and you just had to roll with it," Diehl said.

The breach took out five homes, sending three of them down the river towards Portage. It drained the community of its biggest attraction. 

"A lot of people had the impression the Dells was just closed. People that were hurt the most were certainly people that were on the lake," Steve Zowin, owner of Dells Watersports, told 27 News. 

Zowin was out on the lake towing in boats when it happened. 

"It was very surreal when I was looking to the north and I realized I was looking at the other side of the Wisconsin River," he said. "A 300 foot wide hole, at least, and, oh man we gotta get out of here, so we had to get off the lake. It was going down fast."

Dells Watersports, which rents boats and other watercraft, lost 80 percent of its business when the lake drained, leaving a mud pit behind. Tommy Bartlett Show skiers couldn't perform. 

"It was a gigantic mud hole all of June and July and then the grass started to grow at the bottom of the lake," Diehl told 27 News. "Coming down here was very depressing."

The biggest challenge for tourism officials was the perception of what happened after people saw the devastation on the news, but the community stepped up to keep businesses going. By the end of the season, visitor spending was only down about four percent. 

"Everyone rallied together so those that were directly impacted by the lake draining were assisted and people who could help offered it," said visitor and convention bureau executive director Romy Snyder. "Even competitors would contact each other and say let me know what we can do to help you, we're here for you."

Diehl wasn't just dealing with keeping his business afloat. He was also a village board member at the time and he led the lake rebuild efforts. The goal was to have water in the lake by May 2009. City, state and federal officials worked to rebuild Highway A that had washed out, along with a new dam project. 

"The gates on the dam were modified to be able to handle through-put at a much faster level than the old dam," Diehl said. "It was rounded, so that the physics of it would pull more water over the top."

It took about six months to build the new dam in the same spot and fill the lake up halfway. The state bought land from the homeowners who lost their houses and by next spring the lake was back in business. 

"It was unbelievable [to put on the first show]," said Diehl. "Our campaign that year was the show was new and even the water's new."

10 years later, the Zowins are thriving. Disaster loans kept them floating through the crisis and they've since expanded rentals to new areas, thanks in part to losing out on sales in 2008.

"Met some new friends, made some new acquaintances, and started a new business," Zowin said.

Despite their resilience to disaster, the business owners don't like to be reminded of the breach, though it has become a piece of history for the community. They're ready to move on and get ready for this tourism season. 

"Everyone's looking forward to a wonderful summer," Diehl told 27 News. 

New condos sit in place of the homes that fell into the lake, along with a plaque commemorating the tragedy and one celebrating Diehl's work. 

The Dells area wasn't the only spot impacted by heavy rains in June 2008. Communities downriver from Lake Delton flooded and other towns across the state were under water, too. Gov. Jim Doyle declared a state of emergency in two dozen counties. Many had to evacuate. 

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