Care, for the “Things You Didn’t Even Think About”

Story & Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

On Friday afternoon, James Fair had initially stopped by the American Red Cross caseworker station set up in a Milwaukee hotel lobby to ask about transportation. He’s in that challenging in-between time, after being displaced by a fire at his apartment building but before he can move into his new place.

Moments later in the lobby, along with talking transportation, Red Crosser Melinda Rosario was putting adhesive bandages on cuts on Fair’s hands, making sure he’d had a chicken Caesar wrap for lunch (he’d eaten it) and checking in that he knew the latest developments on his next apartment.

Melinda Rosario, Red Cross disaster team member, opens an adhesive bandage for James Fair, one of many people still dealing with an apartment building fire on Jan. 28.

“They take care of things you didn’t even think about,” Fair said afterward.

Fair is one of more than 100 people still displaced by a Jan. 28 apartment building fire on Milwaukee’s South Side, a fatal incident and the largest among a slew of high-volume residential fires to kick off 2021 in Wisconsin. In all, the Red Cross has helped 740 people who have been displaced by more than 100 fires since the start of the year, which is on trend with a typical busy winter here, but markedly higher in terms of the number of people affected each day.

Behind those numbers, however, are the unique ways disasters affect each person, from flashpoint to aftermath, with no certain timetable. Fair, a military veteran and a Milwaukee native, had lived in the 106-unit building in the Burnham Park neighborhood since the fall. On Jan. 27, he had dozed off to the nightly news only to be woken up at around 2 a.m. to pounding by a neighbor on his third-floor apartment door. Half wondering if it was a dream, Fair had enough time to grab his cane, put on a robe and grab a hat, to cover his head and face, given the smoke, to say nothing of the pandemic.

“They were yelling that we had to evacuate onto a city bus … at first, I was thinking that I’d be right back up in my place,” Fair said, before stepping back to reflect on the layers of issues that come up with such a fire. “You know that saying, ‘Bigger the headache, bigger the pill’? I feel like there isn’t a pill big enough for what you go through” after a fire.

Even still, Fair said he was very appreciative of the hive of Red Cross activity buzzing around him in the hotel lobby. Sheltering operations on Friday at the hotel – one of two hotel-shelters established over the past two weeks with just this fire – included delivery of 80 lunches by volunteers Kevin Connell and Terry Mackin, and restocking of complimentary masks and gloves by Merrill volunteer Laurel Cooper and Binghamton, N.Y. health services volunteer Jeanne Frey. Behind the scenes, numerous other disaster workforce members organized partners to identify affordable housing possibilities, transported totes for those ready to begin moving and helped residents process the emotional gravity of a fire.

James Fair calls himself a “different type of soldier,” though one grateful for help from the Red Cross after a fire displaced him and the rest of the people in his 106-unit building in Milwaukee.

Rosario, a disaster team member from Harrisburg, Pa., said that Fair and a handful of other military veterans displaced by this Milwaukee fire would be moving into longer-term housing in the coming weeks thanks to a partnership with the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs. Fair called himself “a different type of soldier,” someone up for the challenges that life can hit you with at 2 a.m. on a sub-zero-temperature Milwaukee weekday. At the same time, he recognized that he’s had Red Cross volunteers fighting for him since he arrived from the fire. 

“I’m glad Red Cross is here, these people are here, because … otherwise, I don’t know,” he said.

Your generosity and volunteerism enable the Red Cross to help people like James every single day. We’re grateful for your consideration of joining our mission, through a gift or as a volunteer.

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