The Dells: Fighting back from a flood

July 2, 2008 5:34:00 AM PDT
Three weeks after forces of nature drained Lake Delton and washed away much of the summer business at the Dells, one of the Midwest's best-known tourist attractions is pushing forward with plans to rebuild. Tom Diehl's dream has quite literally dried up.

"The lake was gone in an hour and a half and you watch 41 years of your life rush into the Wisconsin River," he said.

For years, it has been advertised as the best show on H2O. Tommy Bartlett's famous water skiers wowed crowds on Lake Delton for five decades. When the water went away, so did a big draw. But as they say, the show must go on, and most afternoons just a few hundred people fill an arena meant for 4,000.

"Tommy Bartlett's been around for so long, since we were kids. We want it for our kids. We want to support the show," said Kathy Davis of St. Charles.

"The ones that say, 'Well, we'll be here next year when the ski show's here.' I'm saying if we don't have customers this summer, it could be very, very difficult to have shows next summer," said Diehl.

Saturated soil caused five homes to slide into the water below. The late so many loved is now a cemetery for their dreams.

"We retired up here to live the rest of my life here, you know, and then this happens. We'll never get this back," said Tom Pekar, flood victim.

Lost in the stunning pictures is the fact that almost every business at the Dells remains open. Many businesses are offering guests 50 percent off on attractions just to have visitors.

"It did hit us. We're down about 25 to 30 percent in the month of June. Fortunately, there is a lot of summer left," said Tim Gantz, Noah's Water Park owner.

It took less than two hours for all the water to drain out of the lake. It will be May before they can reintroduce water to the lake. But for some, this has become an attraction in and of itself. In true Dells style, duck boats offer tourists a close-up look at the damage. It gave kids something to think about other than water slides and boat rides.

"My thoughts, it's like, jow did it happen? Why did it happen?" wondered one child.

"We're now going to turn on the positive mode, the destruction is over with. We have to assure there is no more economic destruction," said Diehl.


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