Saxon Harbor in Iron County, Wisconsin, will open for the summer season with a ceremony Friday, June 11. It’s a grand reopening and dedication that marks the end of a long road to recovery involving several agencies, including Wisconsin Emergency Management (WEM). A major storm in July 2016 destroyed the marina along with 85 boats in the harbor, killing a beloved member of the community.
“The campground and much of the marina was washed away,” said Randy Books, Northwest Region director for WEM. “It was utter devastation.”
On the evening of July 11, 2016, heavy rains sent a wall of water and mud from a creek — destroying the 90-slip marina, scattering boats into Lake Superior, and washing away a campground with more than 30 sites.
“Boats were bouncing around like corks, there were two boats on top of each other, and a camper was sucked out and slammed into the bridge,” said Stacy Ofstad, Iron County emergency manager. He and Books worked together from that night moving forward. “For a small town, everyone works together. Our team was on the ground the night of the disaster — it’s very rare to be able to respond to an emergency while it’s still happening.”
Getting to the area was a challenge as the harbor had become an island after roads and bridges were washed out. Hurley firefighters and other first responders rescued people in Saxon Harbor and surrounding communities, including Ofstad.
“Hurley firefighters brought a ladder truck to rescue myself and several others who were stranded and spent the night in a pole barn on the property,” Ofstad said. “Since I was stranded there, I worked all night and figured out how to get a lot of things in motion. I opened the Emergency Operations Center by 7:30 that next morning.”
It wasn’t just Saxon Harbor that had been devastated. Several counties in Books’ region were hit with flooding.
“People lost their wells, there were stranded individuals who needed food and water, and the town of Gurney was landlocked. There were a lot of moving parts,” Books said.
And with the storm, came tragedy — something that can never be replaced.
“Luckily on the night of the storm, there were not a lot of campers staying at the campground,” said Ofstad, who also functions as fire chief for the towns of Gurney and Saxon. “My friend Mitch Koski, a former Iron County Board member, lost his life when he was inspecting the damage at the marina and his truck got washed away. It happened only a few minutes after I had spoken to him.”
There was little time to let the tragedy sink in. Almost immediately engineers from the Department of Transportation were in the area to conduct damage assessments. Ofstad contacted the game warden to get a Department of Natural Resources plane to take pictures and map out the area of damage.
“When I finally reached Saxon Harbor mid-morning the next day the devastation was unimaginable,” said Eric Peterson, Iron County forest administrator. “Oronto Creek was flowing through where the campground used to be, boats were beached along the Lake Superior shoreline, there was a sailboat sunk in the middle of the north basin. What was left looked nothing like what was here only the day before.”
Peterson immediately jumped into action and saw the response through, collaborating with several agencies.
“From coordination with the Coast Guard immediately following the flood, the Wisconsin National Guard’s assistance in debris removal, U.S. Army Corps [of Engineers] dredging, to the planning and construction of the newly rebuilt marina and campground, I have led the efforts to get Saxon Harbor back up and running,” Peterson said.
Iron County has had help with the process of rebuilding and paying for repairs to Saxon Harbor. Books and Ofstad shepherded the county through the process with the state of Wisconsin and federal government issuing declarations of emergency in response to the storm.
“Eligible project work following the 2016 storm included debris removal, dredging, campground repairs, and repair of the damaged harbor facilities back to pre-disaster condition,” said Patty Fahey, WEM public assistance specialist. “The site was damaged again during a 2018 storm, and Iron County Forestry received additional reimbursement through public assistance for debris removal and repairs to the marina.”
Several improvements will make the harbor more resilient to flooding, including a concrete spillway to divert water from creeks in the event of another major storm. A sand berm to protect the marina is lined with stone that forms a breakwater called riprap. The highway bridge over Oronto Creek at the harbor was rebuilt bigger and higher off the ground. The campground has been moved to higher ground.
“When I first learned of what happened at Saxon Harbor and saw pictures of the damage, it was incredible to see what the flood had done there,” said Eric Learn, state public assistance officer. “I was not able to visit the site until well into the recovery process but was impressed with how much they had done.”
At least $14 million dollars has been spent on the project. WEM helped secure about $2.8 million from state and federal assistance programs. Additional funding is still coming from a combination of local, state, and federal sources.
“The completed harbor and campground were nearly unrecognizable from the pictures I saw and firsthand accounts I heard of damages following the 2016 event,” Fahey said. “It was evident that this is an important place in the community and a significant amount of effort and coordination went into this considerable accomplishment.”
That effort started on the ground that evening with Ofstad, and he has a unique perspective after living through it.
“For a disaster, things flowed really well because we worked as a team,” Ofstad said. “It’s beautiful there now, but I am not a big fan of change because I grew up in Gurney and it’s different now. But it is a huge accomplishment.”
The rededication of the harbor on Friday will symbolize not just the reopening of a pier and campground, but the resilience of an entire community.
“It has been a long five-year road to get back to fully operational,” Peterson said. “Visitors to Saxon Harbor appreciate all the efforts to get us back to this point. People seem to be very pleased to see what we have brought back and they are glad to have this gem reopened.”