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Fortitude after flood: Wisconsin couple recovers together

Jeanne Atkinson takes a break from sweeping up her home to describe the scene during last week's flood when the Nemadji River, located nearby, overflowed its banks and flooded their home. Bob King / Forum News Service1 / 5
Lawrence "Sonny" Atkinson hauls out waterlogged drywall after last week's storm flooded his and his wife Jeanne's earth sheltered home south of South Superior. The home, built into a hill on their land, was filled with 6 inches of clay-satured water after the Nemadji River flooded its banks, covered their hayfield and came through the front door. Bob King / Forum News Service2 / 5
Jeanne Atkinson, 74, and "Sonny", 76, have been married 56 years. Bob King / Forum News Service3 / 5
"Sonny" Atkinson rips damaged drywall out his home Friday morning. Much of the interior had to be gutted after the nearby Nemadji River overflowed its banks and spilled into their earth sheltered home. Bob King / Forum News Service4 / 5
The roof of the Atkinsons' earth sheltered home and the hayfield that was turned into a temporary lake when the Nemadji River overflowed, are seen on Friday morning, June 22. Bob King / Forum News Service5 / 5

SUPERIOR, Wis. — After 56 years of marriage, Jeanne Atkinson has seen enough of her husband to know there's nothing he can't do.

"He figures out everything," she said, admiring Lawrence "Sonny" Atkinson as he hauled a plywood board out of the kitchen.

In the days since their beloved earth sheltered home outside south Superior flooded last weekend, Sonny had chopped the drywall to waist level throughout the home and exposed the lumber, some of it black with mold.

On Thursday, June 21, widespread flooding brought a state of emergency declaration for four northwestern Wisconsin counties. But at the Atkinson place, a state of self-sufficiency prevailed.

"We've had family out to help," the 74-year-old Jeanne said, describing an outpouring of family labor on Monday, "but people have their own lives. We don't ask for a lot of help around here."

Sonny built the house into a hillside 35 years ago. His brother had built a similar home on nearby Lake Nebagamon and Sonny liked it so much he copied the plan. It's so energy efficient, a 100-gallon tank of fuel oil lasts the couple two years.

On Friday, the interior of the home felt cool even as the sun baked the picturesque farmland all around. Red clay previously part of a shin-high soup inside the home earlier in the week was now a flaking crust covering just about everything — the floors, the shrubs in the yard, the hayfield out the picture window to the south.

The Atkinsons are retired beef cattle farmers who stay young, in part, by going to the YMCA three days a week for water aerobics. They kept a steady pace throughout the weeklong flood recovery and were still taking things from inside the home to storage containers outside. With no flood insurance, ample work lies ahead this summer. They're fortunate to have a second farm home farther up the road. It had been for sale, but it's not anymore.

"A little setback like this isn't going to stop me," said Sonny, 76, pulling nails from a trimboard. "You've got to take it as it goes. Sit down and cry, you die. I ain't going to die like that."

The Atkinsons live at the confluence of the Nemadji and Black rivers. It's just south of Superior but it might as well be 100 miles away for how remote it seems. One could think of their 40 lush acres as an earthen coliseum — the house dug in near the top of the bowl and a hayfield down below to the treeline.

On June 17, after the second day of heavy downpours, the hayfield was a lake. The Nemadji on the other side of the treeline was rising fast — faster than any of the dozen false alarms the couple had experienced in their 35 years in the home. It covered the tin roof of a cow shed and made a clothesline disappear.

"I knew this time it was coming," Sonny said, still plugging away.

"It had never come past that apple tree before," Jeanne said, pointing to a scruffy tree surrounded by bird feeders in the front yard.

The kicker, the thing that put the flooding over the plateau of the yard and into the house, was what was happening a few miles upriver on the Black.

"The south berm to the dam had breached," said Kevin Feind, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources superintendent at Pattison State Park, on Friday.

The park never closed, but the dam breach brought a chaos which park officials continued to assess throughout the week.

"We had to close several trails that were underwater and we had different levels of washouts and other damage," Feind said, adding that an estimate on the amount of destruction was still days away.

Upriver, Sonny and Jeanne Atkinson carried on.

"That's the kids' old saddle," Jeanne said from inside a cargo container. "It was under water. We used to have horses."

The couple raised four children, and the family has since swelled to include more than 20 grandchildren and great grandchildren. Looking back on their lives uncovered the beginnings of their fortitude. Jeanne was the oldest of 13, and described being a second mom to some of her siblings. Sonny's mom left home when he was a child, and his dad worked at the steel mill. The four kids learned to raise themselves, he said.

The couple met in grade school in Oliver — not far from where they live now.

Sonny worked his way through tough jobs — manufacturing, the steel mill, Diamond Tool — before finishing his career as head mechanic in a heavy equipment shop in south Superior. Jeanne was a cake decorator for a living.

As Sonny toiled away in the background, Jeanne took a stroll through a charmingly cluttered farmyard laced with raspberry bushes and green earth grown wild. The surrounding collection was a mix of old equipment — a broken down air compressor, an old Ford tractor that still runs — long-ago kids stuff such as the Radio Flyer hidden on its side in the tall grass, and household things which had been soaked and taken out of the home, including a patchwork of rugs in the front yard. Even a vintage DTA bus found a home on the property.

Insulation from inside the walls was strewn about the yard like tumbled sagebrush. The roof of the house, covered in moss the way it happens with earth sheltered homes, leaked before the flood and was beyond fixing with a patch. Jeanne insisted they'd need a new roof were they ever to move back inside.

"Yesterday was my let it go day," she said Friday. "I cried and had a hard day all day long."