After “unfathomable” tragedy, Portage residents get back on their feet

by Justin Kern, communications officer, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Before the fatal fire, before the downtown vigil and before the shelter, Paul Platt and dozens of other residents of an historic apartment building in Portage were having a typical Sunday morning.

For Paul, that meant a morning off from work spent watching YouTube videos in his pajamas.

Then – the smoke alarms.

“The alarms were cutting through the videos and I went out [into the hallway] to see what was going on. That’s when I could smell smoke,” Platt said.

Portage shelter Presbyterian church May 2018

An entrance to Portage Presbyterian Church, where a Red Cross shelter was established for the days following an apartment building fire.

He grabbed a handful of essentials from his nightstand and sprinted out of the building. He called the next few hours “chaotic.” The fire displaced in upwards of 75 people, from more than 50 units at the building known local as The Ram, a notable former hotel in downtown Portage. It also resulted in the fatality of a child who lived in the building, part of a family that many of the residents knew well.

Platt and dozens of other people were assisted by Red Cross with food, recovery resources, mental health services and shelter over the next few days.

While comfortable and fed, Paul said he had a “restless” first night at the shelter, located at nearby Portage Presbyterian Church. He mulled the previously “unfathomable” feelings and experiences that his neighbors were going through. Looking inward, he considered how he had made it through a tough year, one that he felt he had come through with a new steady job and a nice apartment downtown.

“Man, no, this can’t be happening. I just got back on my feet,” he said.

Diana and David Portage shelter May 2018

Red Cross volunteers Diana O’Neill, center, and Dave Sharpe share a light moment during a shelter shift.

Red Cross joined a community effort to help Platt and all the people impacted, including the family going through the “unfathomable” fatality. During the second afternoon at the shelter, a handful of Red Cross volunteers were helping with meals, connections to new clothes and just being there to listen to people. On the day shift, expert disaster volunteer Dave Sharpe sorted out registration and casework, while another disaster volunteer pro Diana O’Neill relayed resources and information to clients from other local agencies.

Carol Manolis, of Packwaukee, spent a portion of her volunteer afternoon Monday talking with Lisa McKee, and her three-month old granddaughter, Korra. In that conversation, Carol took the opportunity to hold sleeping Korra, clad in pink, giving a deserved break for grandma and mom, also at the shelter.

Carol Korra Lisa Portage fire shelter May 2018

Red Cross volunteer Carol Manolis takes a turn feeding and rocking three-month old Korra, the granddaughter of Lisa McKee, left.

Lisa asked Carol about tasks and time involved with volunteering to establish and run a shelter. Carol bounced as she responded, and, with a look down at placid Korra, said “this makes it worthwhile.”

The Red Cross shelter at the church closed on Wednesday, with most residents able to return to their apartments, and others put up in temporary lodging elsewhere in the city. Dozens of meals and snacks were served, and Red Cross will continue to connect residents with resources and needs as they continue their path to full recovery.

Along with Portage Presbyterian Church, other community partners included Riverhaven, Salvation Army, Goodwill, Divine Savior Healthcare Inc. medical staff, St. Vincent de Paul, and the Portage Fire and Police Departments. Many thoughtful residents have also expressed their generosity to these residents in need.

Click here for ways you can support those in need of disaster assistance in Portage and across Wisconsin.

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