“It’s been a rough year”: Compassion and help for residents besieged by storms

Stories and photo by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

Rhonda Pfaff hadn’t finished cleaning out her home, garage and yard from the first flood when the nearby Baraboo River started to rise again.

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Rhonda Pfaff shares an embrace with Cindy Brown, Red Cross volunteer.

By the time a second August flood submerged her neighborhood in Elroy, Pfaff wondered if the deluge and damage weren’t “the last straw” for her home and others on the street, some already cordoned off with caution tape. Pfaff had moved to the home formerly owned by her great-aunt to care for her beloved father, Gaylord (“I was his shadow”). He passed away in March and much of the rehab work they did – wood work, flooring, landscaping – were left awash and stripped from their single-story, cream colored ranch-style home.

“It’s been a rough year,” Pfaff said, soon after a hug with Red Cross volunteer Cindy Brown. “All we have left from the basement are some dishes. You know what? We’re alive. We have our health.”

Pfaff reflected on the destruction in her small Wisconsin town and others across the state hit with record rainfalls, overburdened rivers and more than a dozen tornadoes from mid-August to early September. Red Cross volunteers Cindy Brown and Fayth Harrison went door to door on September 6th in Elroy, its small-town Americana now buttressed with entire living rooms, bedrooms, vehicles and basement possessions on the front curb for disposal.

Harrison and Brown brought Pfaff Red Cross assistance and information on various recovery resources. To Pfaff’s relief, they also brought open hearts.

“You have brightened my day. I can’t tell you how much this means to me,” Pfaff said.

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The scene on one Elroy, Wisconsin street in early September.

As grim as the scene in her neighborhood, Pfaff was appreciative that her family was unharmed and had a place to go, in her former home across town. Pfaff’s ex-husband and his family came by to clear out trash and debris. She teased her son, who had been living at her house along with his fiancée, that he was excused from yard maintenance after flood waters carried a metal yard roller hundreds of yards from their property into a marsh.

Pfaff held remarkable humor and warmth as she talked with Red Cross disaster workers, even while she pointed to the high-water mark on the outside of the home that lined up well into her living room.

“I have to laugh because if I cry I’ll fill up that river so damn fast,” Pfaff said.

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Reedsburg, another hard hit town, continues to deal with standing water from August storms.

Including their time with Pfaff, Brown and Harrison made the rounds with multiple families Thursday in Elroy. Days into a deployment in their own state, the two volunteers they were flagged down on this day by one person in a passing truck, alerted to another person in need of assistance who was working the lunch shift at her downtown diner. Hundreds of residents across the state have received assistance, clean-up supplies, meals and more from Red Cross during response and recovery, now at more than three weeks.

Red Cross continues to reach out to residents across the state in need after these devastating late summer storms, tornadoes and floods. To connect with Red Cross recovery resources, call 888-700-7051 and leave your information. A disaster recovery specialist will call you back as soon as possible.

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From an ATV in a soybean field to a Red Cross shelter: one woman’s rescue story during record-breaking storms

by Justin Kern, American Red Cross of Wisconsin

At first, Janice Huizenga thought she was hunkering down for another summer evening thunderstorm. Janice said she would occasionally peek out of the window of her home in Alto, in Fond du Lac County, on Tuesday as the wind whipped up and the rain started to fall.

Then, a sense of chaos, as the 84-year old saw downed trees, followed by concern, as the power went out at her house and throughout the neighborhood. Janice needed power for medical supplies and to keep an emergency bracelet charged.

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Janice Huizenga, left, shares her rescue story with Red Cross volunteers, including MaryKay Bishop.

With the storm raging around her home – the same storm that dropped more than a dozen tornadoes and flooded numerous rivers across the state – Janice’s adult children, all without power for the night, located a Red Cross shelter with power and notified local fire officials about their mother’s situation and location. Meanwhile, Janice said tornado sirens blared for a third time that night, something she said she’s never heard.

Janice’s home was now surrounded by broken trees, live wires and rain-soaked earth, so firefighters drove an ATV through a soybean field to reach her backyard. Then, she was brought along a meandering path of barely passable roads to a Red Cross shelter at Brandon High School, one town over.

“I was shocked when the tree was down [in my yard] and the roots were out,” said Janice on Wednesday, next to her cot at the shelter. “Then I saw the power line in the tree and wires pulled out of my house. Then, telephone posts were down and you never see that. Down the street, there were more posts down.”

Janice was one of dozens of people to spend a night or more at eight shelters that have been set up since August 20 by the Red Cross as part of monumental storms that have overflowed rivers and damaged homes and property from Prairie du Chien and La Crosse eastward to Coon Valley, Madison, Waupun and Cedarburg. One fatality has been reported so far in association with the storms, which have included record rainfall, numerous tornadoes and emergency declarations.

Three Red Cross shelters remained open as of August 31 and recovery efforts like clean-up kit distribution and sandbagging were in place as the state braced for more rains in the forecast through Labor Day weekend. (For updates on shelters, dial 2-1-1 or follow the Wisconsin Red Cross Facebook and Twitter pages.)

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A cornfield ravaged by August storms outside of Waupun, Wisconsin.

Back in Brandon, Janice recounted her scary evening with Red Cross volunteers, included MaryKay Bishop. The two bonded during the morning with stories of the storm, but also of family. After one night at the shelter – one of the few places with power anywhere close to her home – Janice had connected with her daughter who had planned to navigate roads still under the aftermath of the storms to take in her mother until power and safety were restored in Alto.

Janice was grateful for the night at the shelter, in the basketball court of Brandon H.S. She had slept some and talked with volunteers about plans for a group lunch.

Pondering the power of the devastating storms across Wisconsin, and of the wide-ranging recovery to come for herself and thousands of other residents, Janice said she felt humbled by a higher power at play.

“Man thinks they can do a lot, but nobody can do what God did with this wind,” she said.

To offer your support to people like Janice impacted by the Wisconsin storms and floods, click here to find out how to volunteer, donate or give blood.

“I’ve Never Been So Scared”: Early Reflections on Dane County Flooding

Story by Michele Maki, American Red Cross; Photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

“Now I know what it’s like to be in a hurricane.”

Ashley Repp from Mazomanie, Wisconsin, recounted her harrowing rescue while visiting her neighbor in the local Red Cross shelter at Mazomanie Elementary School.

 

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A mother and daughter watch flood waters consume streets near their home on Tuesday in Mazomanie.

“I was absolutely terrified. The water was rushing in so fast!,” Repp shared.

Repp and her neighbors were rescued early Tuesday morning when heavy rains sent a flash flood crashing through her town of Mazomanie, and the surrounding communities of Cross Plains and parts of the Madison area.

“The rains started Monday, but by early Tuesday, I saw the streets starting to flood. I came outside about 5:30 in the morning and the waters were already rising. I looked across the street to the apartment building that sits a bit lower and saw the bottom floors under water.”

Ashley stopped momentarily to share the pictures she took. The sight showed a small town under a deluge. A record-breaking rainfall on Sunday and Monday swelled rivers, overran into backyards, submerged cars, basements, businesses.

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Red Cross volunteer Cindy Brown, right, assists a client at a shelter at Madison West H.S. on Friday morning. 

Red Cross opened shelters in Mazomanie (314 Anne St.) and Madison (at West H.S., 30 Ash St.), as well as Cross Plains (at Glacier Creek Middle School, since closed). Other resources include mobile and fixed distribution of clean-up kits across Dane County, and, with dozens of community partners and government agencies, multi-agency resource centers in Mazomanie (on Friday, 314 Anne St.) and Middleton (on Saturday at Blackhawk Church, 9620 Brader Way). (Additional updates are available here from Dane County Emergency Management.)

Back at the shelter in Mazomanie, Ashley continued her story. She said that within 20 mins, her stairwell was flooding. “Water came rushing in, and the fire department came by and told us to grab our stuff and get out. I don’t even remember much, except that the water was rushing in so fast-it was hard to stand and keep my balance. I’ve never been so scared in my life!”

The rescue workers assisted Ashley and her neighbors into rafts and then steadied it by walking it through the flood waters, and up to the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) building.

“Folks from all over our community were there to give us clothing and dry out what we had been wearing, which was soaked.”

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On Thursday, a family in Mazomanie cleans up from initial flooding and places sandbags outside their house for the possibility of more water.

When asked how long all this took, Ashley’s face become very somber: “You know … I have no idea. Time just ran into itself … I have no idea at all.  It was about 7 that night before we got settled in. I thought it must be later than that, but … I don’t know.”

Her voice trailed off, she paused and then turned and said, “I’m just so thankful we all got out. Everyone here, the community, the Red Cross, everyone helped us feel safe. Folks offered clothes, food … the whole community pulled together to help all of us.”

When asked whether she would be staying here, at the Red Cross shelter, Ashley replied, “No, I’m lucky. I have a place to stay, but my neighbor doesn’t, so I’m glad you’re here to help her, I was worried.”

Ashley had come by the shelter to check in on her neighbor: “She’s being well cared for, thank you. Thank you, Mazomanie and thank you, Red Cross!”

Follow American Red Cross of Wisconsin on Twitter and Facebook for breaking updates on shelters and other resources. For access to resources for this ongoing flooding situation, dial 2-1-1.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

“Are we homeless now?”: Milwaukee father shares heartache, hope after an apartment building fire

In home fires, the flames and headlines can sometimes overshadow the impact on the lives of the people affected. Jaime was displaced by a fire Saturday afternoon at an apartment building in Milwaukee, along with his wife, Araceli, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lizeth. The fire sent a handful of residents to the hospital. Red Cross volunteers and staff helped during the fire and afterward established a shelter at Ascension Lutheran Church.

Jaime de la mata 43rd St fire April 2018 _ TWOAt the shelter on Monday afternoon, Jaime (above) took a break from filling out a sticker activity book with Lizeth to share his thoughts on the incident – the speed of the fire; the heart-wrenching question his daughter asked afterward; and his appreciation of volunteers and emergency personnel.

Below are excerpts from what Jaime shared in a conversation with Justin Kern, communications officer at the American Red Cross of Wisconsin.

On the fire that started during a restful weekend afternoon:
“It happened before, but those alarms, they were false alarms. This time, it was serious. It took us by surprise.

43rd St fire April 2018 volunteers Ruth Michael

Red Cross volunteers Michael and Ruth call for assistance outside of the apartment building, off S. 43rd St., as impacted residents keep warm in an MCTS bus, at right.

“It was early Saturday, one of the few Saturdays that [my wife and I] don’t work. We just heard someone yelling and the alarm in the distance. I thought it was my phone. Then the alarm starts again, closer. And when I opened our door [to the apartment hallway], I noticed a cloud coming closer to us. I grabbed my daughter, told her to get her jacket, told my wife, I grabbed our keys and we were out.

“I came back to help people, but at that moment, it was incredible, all the smoke. I could see nothing, it was dark and I used my sweatshirt [to cover my mouth]. Since I’ve lived there, I knew everyone around. I was worried. I was yelling, knocking on doors … The whole thing was, 20 seconds, 30 seconds …”

On the uncertain first few hours:
“It was amazing, the help. The police, they were there to do their job. Firefighters, took care of their jobs. The police said to go to the bus, Red Cross will help you. … Before, when I was in the field, watching everything, the smoke, debris. I was cold. …

“I took a seat in the [MCTS] bus and Red Cross were very good to me. It’s an amazing job they all did for us. … The other people, some are sad, but others were treating [my daughter] so nice, talking to her on the bus … it was fine when I saw her.”

On sad questions and hope for what’s to come:
“That first day, it was hard for me. I tried to contain my tears, my feelings.
“Lizeth asked me, ‘Are we homeless now?’ I told her ‘No, no, it was just an accident. I’ve got a job, your mom has a job. You’re alive. Nobody died. We complain about things, all of the time, but maybe this is a message from god. … We’re in the same situation [everyone from the building]. But don’t worry, because something good is coming.’”

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Lunch time at the shelter, served by our volunteers and set up at Ascension Lutheran Church, one of the many partners to help these families during a difficult time.

On his family’s gratitude:
“I’m glad for Red Cross. … They made it so we had a place to sleep, something to eat and help us with our future. No one else is going to do all that for us.
“Red Cross has given the help that we needed. … There were little things, like games to play and a Mickey Mouse [doll]. I didn’t notice, but when I opened her backpack, she brought three waters and three bananas. [laughs] She had the Mickey in there with the things she brought from home.”

Red Cross continues to work with Jaime and his family, as well as with about two-dozen others impacted by this fire. To join our campaign to help families with fire prevention and protection across the county, click here.

In First Aid, Jeanne Charnon is a Top Volunteer

by Antonia Towns, Red Cross volunteer

Upon retiring from her job as a travel agent, Jeanne Charnon started to move up the ranks as a volunteer for the Red Cross.

In nearly a decade of “sharing my time,” Jeanne said she’s learned a great deal about herself and the organization. Her openness to lead and learn is one of the many reasons we’ve chosen Jeanne as one of our spotlight volunteers during Volunteer Appreciation Week.

Jeanne Charnon Photo“Knowing how many great people are involved … it’s a whole team effort and one person could not do it by themselves,” Jeanne (pictured above) said during a recent interview. “It’s very worthwhile, regardless of what area you’re in.”

In 2009, Jeanne, of Greendale, tagged along with a friend who was already volunteering with the Red Cross. Jeanne started out at the front desk, warmly handling reception and bureaucratic duties for about a year. Then, she joined the First Aid Support Team, also known as F.A.S.T.

Jeanne is now the co-facilitator of F.A.S.T. and has been essential in the success of the program. She is responsible for arranging contracts with clients and setting up the calendar for staffing events, which she says can mostly be done from home.

F.A.S.T. deploys volunteers who are certified in First Aid and CPR to community events like Summerfest and the Special Olympics, providing basic First Aid.

“Working with the Special Olympics, seeing how they interact and their joy, they’re a primary reason why I do this,” she said.

Amid staffing changes in 2014, Jeanne was part of a small group of volunteers who stepped forward to voice their concerns about the program ending. The group created a proposal and were granted one year to see how they would do, they are now into their fourth year. By 2015 the program was totally volunteer based and has been led by volunteers since. This year F.A.S.T. is expected to be present at around 35 events and has about 52 volunteers.

“We manage to staff them all. I hope we can keep the program going,” she said. “I enjoy the people that we work with.”

A Different Kind of Disaster

By Sid Boersma, Clinical Social Worker & Mental Health Leader for Southwest WI Chapter

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I had the honor and privilege of serving as a Disaster Mental Health Responder in Las Vegas for ten days after the October 1st mass shooting. There was a heavy emphasis on Red Cross Mental Health and Health Care in this deployment given the nature of the event. I assisted with two blood drives, attended the Vice President Pence visit when Las Vegans from many Churches and Synagogues walked to City Hall from the four corners of the city to come together in healing. I helped at two other healing events and attended a memorial for the slain Las Vegas hero and policeman, Charlie.

vegas1 My work also included working one-on-one with victims and their families at the Family Assistance Center and via an Integrated Coordinated Condolences Team, which includes Spiritual Care, Health Services, Caseworker and Mental Health support for individuals and families. I have been deployed a number of times to floods and hurricanes. This one was different. Difficult. I was struck with the intensity and the great needs of those who lost loved ones and friends and those who were physically and very emotionally injured. One gal who lost her best friend in the shooting and was scarred by shrapnel herself will never be forgotten. She’ll never forget the trauma but we helped her move forward. Showing up was the best thing we can do. To listen, to help people heal.

 My heart continues to be a bit broken with the many grieving folks I met with. This deployment has required me to take time to reflect and relax and heal as caregiver stress was clearly a reality for me. My advice is that we care for self and others during and following all of our work as Red Cross volunteers. Take time for yourself and get help from others too. We need to provide so much tender loving care to others in these events that it may take the wind out of ourselves. I am breathing a little more deeply these days and appreciating life a bit more. It certainly is precious, isn’t it?

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The American Red Cross offers free 24/7 counseling and support, contact the Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.