“All that matters”: Red Cross supports people across Wisconsin after late-night, widespread tornados and storms

By Justin Kern and Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Jim Zastrow stands in front of the storm and tornado damage at and around his family’s home in Oconomowoc. Photo by Laura McGuire / American Red Cross

Jim Zastrow didn’t need an official tornado declaration to know the seriousness of the overnight storms. He could make it out in the wood shards from the destroyed barn across the street that were stuck into his own Oconomowoc home’s exterior walls.

For Zastrow, like many people across Wisconsin, daylight on Thursday revealed a bewildering spread of destruction, at homes from Black River Falls and Merrill, to Ripon and Concord. As disaster volunteers Debbie Urbanek and Steve Buck from the American Red Cross brought emergency assistance and clean-up materials to Zastrow and others in western Waukesha County, Zastrow thought about what was most important after a night of hunkering down with his wife and daughter.

“My house is devastated but my family is fine and that’s all that matters,” said Zastrow.

From the evening of July 28 to the early hours of July 29, a line of thunderstorms and now-confirmed tornados raked across Wisconsin, starting with alerts, watches and warnings, then leaving behind a spotty stretch of residential ruin. As of Friday morning, the National Weather Service had confirmed at least five tornados and power was just returning for parts of north-central and northeast Wisconsin. One person was reported killed in a car crash caused by storm debris.

American Red Cross disaster volunteers Steve Buck, left, and Debbie Urbanek brought emergency assistance and clean-up supplies to residents in Waukesha County. Photo by Laura McGuire / American Red Cross

The Red Cross helped those affected during and afterward in a number of ways, including emergency assistance to residents affected by tornados in New Richmond and Oconomowoc, as well as other storm damage in La Valle, Wisconsin Dells and Omro, plus support with power charging stations and water distribution in Ripon and Pine River. Between people who were displaced temporarily or for a potentially longer timeframe, the Red Cross provided direct assistance to more than 40 people in various parts of the state. At the same time, disaster teams were still supporting families displaced by unrelated home fires in Oshkosh, Milwaukee, Peshtigo and Sheboygan.

Uniquely, more than 15,000 people were in town for a popular aircraft show in Oshkosh, many of them camping and in RVs. So, the Red Cross and partners established an evacuation center before and during the storm at the Menominee Nation Arena in Oshkosh. From arena seats and in view of the historic Mecca basketball court, families from North Dakota, Minnesota, Tennessee, Missouri and just up the street rode out a roaring, lightning-packed storm cutting across Winnebago County.

Gary Garske, left, and Kelly Moore, attendees of an aircraft event in Oshkosh, rode out a threatening storm at an evacuation center run by the American Red Cross. Photo by Justin Kern / American Red Cross

Gary Garske, from Devils Lake, N.D., said he had been attending the E.A.A. AirVenture show since the 1990s, though luckily had never experienced inclement weather beyond rain and wind gusts. His visit this year, accompanied by Kelly Moore, her daughter and the daughter’s friend, included a layover at a Red Cross evacuation center. Garske and Moore had Red Cross blankets draped over their legs to get cozy in the arena seating as the storm howled outside for more than 40 minutes. Moore checked out weather updates on her computer; Olympic swimming on arena TVs served as a welcome distraction for others at the evacuation center.

“This is perfect. I wouldn’t want to be out there in a camper,” said Garske.

You can help people during their darkest hour. Join our disaster volunteers. More than 90 percent of our humanitarian mission happens because of the compassion and dedication of people just like you. Find out more and sign up at redcross.org/DAT.

Red Cross believer shows “good things come in threes”

By Laura McGuire, American Red Cross

Cindy Stiffler has been on both sides of the table when it comes to receiving and giving blood products.

But it’s her passion as an American Red Cross volunteer that brings to mind the quote, “all good things come in threes”.

In 2018, Stiffler was diagnosed with breast cancer. Through her journey with cancer she endured chemotherapy, radiation, multiple surgeries and she required blood and platelets. Once during her recovery, she needed to wait for blood. Thanks to the Red Cross’ advance inventory management system, blood was located in another state and was transported to the hospital for her transfusion.

Cindy Stiffler at a blood drive in Madison. Photo by Laura McGuire / American Red Cross

Stiffler started giving blood in college and has been a loyal blood donor ever since. Her journey with cancer paused her donations, but now she is donating again. She will reach her 20th donation milestone later this month.

“Donating is a good thing to do,” Stiffler said. “You never know when you’ll be on the other side needing blood. I have O-negative blood and I know how important that is to share with others.”

In 2013, Stiffler started volunteering at Red Cross blood drives and has been volunteering in the Madison area for the last six years. When asked about what drives her passion, she said she respects the mission of the Red Cross and enjoys how easy and meaningful it is to help. She likes volunteering at blood drives because she knows she has a direct impact on someone’s life. 

Stiffler’s passion for the Red Cross started early in life. She remembers seeing the Red Cross at work when a friend’s house caught on fire.

“The Red Cross’ disaster team was on the ground instantly providing my friend’s family with comfort, care and essential needs,” said Stiffler. “It’s a comfort knowing that the Red Cross is always there. It’s good people doing good work.”

The Red Cross is grateful for Cindy Stiffler as she continues to fulfil her passion as a loyal blood donor and volunteer.

Every cancer survivor’s ability to donate blood will be determined on a case by case basis. Eligibility is ultimately determined by the type of cancer you had and the treatment you received. For eligibility requirements please visit redcrossblood.org.

Social volunteer Maya Reinfeldt found her way to give back “when nothing was certain”

By Katie Baneck, American Red Cross

All major news outlets share their stories via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, you name it; social media has easily become the go to place for people to get their daily news fix. The American Red Cross of Wisconsin is no different. Head to our Facebook page and you’ll see it’s up to date with upcoming events, current projects, and recent awards.

Sharing current events and good news are just some of the responsibilities of a Wisconsin Red Cross social media volunteer. Perhaps the most crucial responsibility is keeping our social media pages updated in the event of a disaster. Social media is one of the first places people look to when a disaster strikes, and keeping those pages updated with current information can often put the public at ease. Our social media volunteers work hard before, during and after those events to make sure our followers have the most up to date information on how to prepare, react and recover in the event of a disaster.

Maya Reinfeldt (at left), a senior at UW-Madison and Red Cross Social Media Volunteer, recently took the time to share her volunteer experience.

Why did you choose to get involved with the Red Cross?

Maya: “At the start of the [COVID-19] pandemic, I was feeling very frightened and helpless about the state of the world. The idea of volunteering with the Red Cross was very appealing, as it would allow me to do my part in helping others, no matter how small, at a time when nothing was certain.

I was enthusiastic about supporting the Red Cross’ operations and being as productive as I could in aiding others over quarantine.”

What was it about the social media role that was compelling to you?

Maya: “I believe that social media has the power to reach and affect countless people. It can spread valuable, life-saving information, instill hope, share stories, and provide resources. Being a part of this process was an excellent way to involve myself safely in the workings of the Red Cross.”

What are some of the things you’ve been involved with as a social volunteer?

Maya: “I’ve moderated both Wisconsin-based and nationwide questions to the Red Cross, I have shared stories and photos of the work the Wisconsin Red Cross is doing, and I’ve helped to publicize various events.”

How does it make you feel to be involved in this unique way?

Maya: “It makes me feel proud to know that the work I’m doing helps people in need, and helps the Red Cross to succeed in their mission. I also feel relief knowing that I found a way to help and to stay active in the community during the pandemic.”

The social media team provides numerous opportunities, almost entirely from the comfort of your own home. For information on how you can become a social media volunteer with the Red Cross – with local and national responses – reach out to our team at VolunteerWisconsin@redcross.org.