Looking back 10 years since historic Elkader flood

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Several businesses were heavily damaged by the flood of 2008, including Wilke’s (left), and Central Heating and Air Conditioning. The Elkader Fire Station also sustained heavy damage and was eventually demolished. Not pictured is FreedomBank, which was also a total loss. Other businesses along Main Street had significant water damage.

With the exception of the circled house, all of the other homes in this photo—and more—were destroyed by the 2008 flood.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor


A decade has passed since a historical flood swept across the south end of Main Street significantly damaging dozens of Elkader homes and businesses. Though the town has recovered, the memories of those anxious hours remain fresh in the minds of those most seriously impacted by the disaster.

Among the hardest hit was Wilke’s. More than four feet of water raced through the grocery store knocking canned and packaged goods into mud-slicked aisles. Store owners Dave and Becky Wilke, who monitored river levels on the Internet throughout the day, were helping homeowners in the south end of town when they realized their store might be in trouble.

“We saw some plastic containers floating down the street and my immediate thought was “This is not going to be good,’” said Dave. 

In a town accustomed to flooding, the June 2008 event was the worst in history. A floodwall and levy designed to protect against water levels up to 27 feet could not hold back the swollen Turkey River. Fifty homes were evacuated in the final hour of June 8. The river crested the following day at 32 feet.

“When the sandbags blew around 11:30 that night, I knew the south end of town was gone,” said former Mayor Bob Garms. “I called Roger (Thomas) and suggested he make arrangements to bring in the National Guard.”

Thomas was a state representative serving the area at the time of the flood.

After making the call to Thomas, Garms helped volunteers in the fire station remove some of the hoses and other items.

“By the time I walked out, the water was up to my knees and rising,” he added.

An Elkader resident for more than 40 years, Garms has lived through several floods. But the 2008 event was the first time that the force of water moved some houses off their foundations and caused such a high level of destruction.

Nancy Dennler and her late husband, Dave, owned a house at 406 Main Street. The two-story structure had been their home and Nancy’s place of business since 1982.

“We lived through three floods,” Nancy recalled. “The first time it filled the basement. The second time it was two feet deep on the main floor and in 2008, it was three feet deep there.”

Like many other residents, the Dennlers monitored the rainfall upstream. When it became apparent that a wall of water was on the way, the couple and a small army of friends and neighbors helped them moved their belongings. They utilized the upper story of their home and when space ran out there, they removed items from the house.

“I was at my sister’s house when the waters receded,” Nancy said. “I started walking back home and met Dave along the way. ‘I’m not doing this again,’ I told him and he agreed. We didn’t clean or anything. We just walked away.”

With assistance from the City and FEMA, the couple purchased another home. The last time Nancy saw her house, it was being demolished. And while she admits to shedding a tear or two, she has a permanent reminder of the placed where her family made 26-year’s worth of memories.

“When Dave died, the fire department gave me a tree to plant in his memory,” Nancy said. “I got permission to put it in Founders Park where our backyard used to be.”

 Patty and Tim Englehardt lived with their family at the end of Bronsan Street. Previous flooding had left them with a waterlogged backyard but a dry house. 

Patty was in Dubuque when the river started rising. She didn’t think there was any danger to her home, especially since a dike had been built along the river to protect the area.  A week earlier, the water had come up and the Engelhardts had started to clean out their basement, just in case. The water receded that time, so Patty said she started to feel OK.

 “I got a call from Tim telling me that they were starting to move things out of the house. He said I should get home as soon as I could,” Patty recalled. “When I got there, there were 10 or 12 people in the house helping box things up. Then Bill Erickson showed up with a trailer to move the big stuff. He even stored it for us until things were over.” They finished about the time the alarm sounded notifying residents of the need to evacuate.

The Englehardt’s former next-door neighbor, Mike Rentschler, was more fortunate because her house was on higher ground. “When the fire whistle blew, the Engelhardts came over and said we had to go right now,” Mike recalled. “That was when reality hit. My first reaction was ‘What am I going to do now?’ so I got into my car and went up to Main Street, walked around and then started to help fill sandbags. I left my two cats in the house, knowing that they would be safe on the second floor.”

Mike saw the Engelhardts, who were also in the downtown area.  Since it was obvious that the river was still rising, she suggested they stay at Leonard’s Funeral Home, where Mike was employed. That night, they all slept on sofas and on the floor as the river continued to ravage the southwest side.

With the water finally receded, Rentschler moved back into her house and began the long and arduous process of cleaning up. Friends and family pitched in to create a semblance of normalcy. She also had a houseguest–Rachel Engelhardt, who had also been a flood victim. They lived in the house for three months until Rachel’s home was habitable.

Tim, Patty and their children eventually bought a house on East Bridge Street. “We were lucky,” Patty said. “We had bought flood insurance just six months before the flood, and that insurance covered everything. I still miss my quiet neighborhood and miss my neighbors, but we’re high and dry.”

Mike contemplated staying in her house for a while. “I really thought about it a lot, but as time went on, I hated seeing all those ruined houses,” she said. “It was kind of eerie being down there with no one else around. Then the DOT offered to buy me out. If they ever wanted to do something with the highway hillside, they had to get the land before FEMA did.”

Though the 2008 flood will stand in local history as one of the town’s darkest hours it will also be remembered as one of its greatest triumphs.

“It was devastating to be witness to all of that destruction,” said Garms. “But I also know that people would come together and help their neighbors at their time of great need. It’s always been that way here. It always will be.”

Freelancer Pat McTaggart contributed to this article.

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