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Vietnam veteran reflects on damage, healing on anniversary of devastating Burlington floods

Posted at 8:19 AM, Jul 12, 2018

One year ago, Burlington was underwater. Rains pounded all of the area, with record flooding devastating lives. 

It's a much different scene on this July 12th. The banks of the Fox River are dry and cracked in desperate need of some rain. The river itself is so clear, you can see the finest details in your reflection of the water. However, this time last year, it was high and fast.

"You can't explain it," Jim Hurst said. "Nobody can fully understand the devastation that goes along with something of this magnitude."

Hurst's home sits just a stone's throw from the Fox River. He's seen flooding here before, but nothing quite like this. 

"The water has never come more than a foot above the city sidewalks," Hurst said. "Now, it's two to three feet higher. It's hard to imagine this was going to happen."

TODAY'S TMJ4 spoke with Hurst last year as he pumped water out of his basement. While he's familiar with flooding, since he's so close to the river, he was shocked by the timing of it.

"Who would believe we'd flood in July in Wisconsin?" Hurst said last year. "It doesn't happen."

The pedestrian bridge across from his home looks serene and peaceful now. Last year, Hurst says the water went up over concrete slabs supporting the bridge.

But last year's flood is anything but water under the bridge for Hurst. He's still fixing up his basement after the damage. He says the water completely filled his basement, up to the floorboards of the first floor. He considers himself lucky though, because while everything in the basement was destroyed, the first floor was, for the most part, saved. There were some wet spots on the first floor, but nothing detrimental to the home. They had recently renovated the kitchen, pouring thousands of dollars into making it nice. It would have been all for naught if the water continued to rise. 

"Is our house back to where it was before? No, not even close," Hurst said. "Is the house livable? Yeah, it's livable. We were out of the house for roughly five months. From the 12th of July to the 24th of December. It wasn't done, but we wanted to get back in."

Little by little, he has been taking back the home from Mother Nature's grasp. The basement, completely dry now, looks like a construction zone still. Two by fours are strewn about, with new fixtures and windows in place. It's well on its way to getting back to where it was but it comes at a cost. Hurst says he's poured thousands of dollars back into the home to get it back to normal. 

However, he says they lost things much more valuable than money in the floods.

"For me, it was devastating, emotional, when the water is coming in and you can't stop it and you can't do anything. You're losing all these things," Hurst said. "One of the things that's hard for me, I lost all the letters my wife sent me when I was in Vietnam. They only mean something to me. They don't mean anything to anyone else, but there is stuff you'll never replace."

Through all of the devastation though, Hurst is able to maintain plenty of optimism through his sense of humor. 

"I think we had way too much stuff in there," Hurst said with a chuckle. "I know I'm a little bit of a hoarder. Maybe some of it was a blessing, to declutter the house."

With a smile, it's easy to see how his family has been able to recover. His spirit wouldn't be broken by these floods. 

"Hey, we have our health," Hurst said. "We brought a couple new grandchildren into the world in the last year. All in all, this is just stuff. We have to move on and keep a positive attitude and remember, there are people worse off than we are in the world."

Hurst didn't have to look worldwide to find people worse off than his family. He says his neighbor had a wall come down in her basement because of the water. The family had to put more than $100,000 into fixing the home. 

He's put thousands into his home as well and expects to finish everything by the end of the year. What was more overwhelming than the money though, was the help everyone received from the community. It's something Hurst is grateful for. 

"It was unbelievable as far as I'm concerned," Hurst said. "The support and what the community tried to do to help everyone else. I had neighbors coming down and helping, when they were in a situation as bad, maybe not as bad as us, these two houses were some of the worst on this side of the river. The neighbors coming down and pumping her basement out and helping us move stuff out. The volunteer church groups that were crawling in crawl space in my basement to get Christmas decorations out. It's when you see the good of people coming out."

The community coming together was a bright side of an otherwise terrible situation. Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave reflected on the one-year anniversary of the floods by releasing this statement: 

“On July 12, 2017, I woke up early to drive my son to Waterford from my home in Racine for a baseball tournament. I had planned to go back home and get ready for my work day. Little did I know I would be driving through pounding rain, flooded streets, and declaring a state of emergency for Racine County within a few short hours. Over the next 24 hours, the Fox River rose to historic levels and caused unprecedented flooding that touched nearly every resident and business owner in the Burlington area.  

“People lost their homes, their income, and their belongings, but what they did not lose was their heart and their faith. What I witnessed after that July 12 morning was a community rise to a devastating challenge with grace, leadership, and dedication. I saw Mayor Hefty, Chief Anderson, Chief Babe, City Administrator Carina Walters, first responders, volunteers and countless residents put others before themselves, never hesitating for a moment to do whatever they could to make the residents of Burlington safe and secure. 

“The response and recovery was truly a team effort. The Racine County Communications Center seamlessly assumed all City of Burlington police, fire, and rescue dispatching duties within hours of the flood. Our GIS mapping team developed a specialized damage assessment app for smartphones. We received tremendous help from the state, including the National Guard, equipment such as sand bag fillers from local municipalities, and donations and clean-up support from residents near and far.  

“This intergovernmental teamwork did not stop with the flood. This past year has been filled with truly unprecedented agreements and collaborations between the state, the county, and our municipalities. Together, we are making Racine County Strong.