“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.

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