Fond du Lac flooding victims reflect on a memorable Red Cross experience

By Nicole Sandler, American Red Cross

As Red Cross staff and volunteers, we often report on how we help those in need at the time disaster strikes. There is a lot of outside attention “in the moment” of a disaster, even though the work continues for days and weeks after. To provide a more in-depth look at what relief and recovery means to those we’ve served, we had a conversation recently with one Wisconsin family impacted by sudden ice jam flooding in mid-March.

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Lisa Frank, right, and her daughter Amanda pose with a Donald Driver bobblehead, among the handful of keepsakes they were able to grab when evacuating their flooded apartment complex. (Photo: Wendy Rociles, American Red Cross)

Lisa Frank and her adult daughter Amanda were in the bullseye of the spring flooding in Fond du Lac. With their apartment building in danger of rapidly rising water, they reacted to the call of local firefighters to evacuate immediately. Given 10 minutes to grab whatever belongings they most needed, Lisa scrambled around her third floor apartment while Amanda attended to her apartment one floor below.

Within the time allotted they each emerged with a few necessities, including critical medications, a change of clothing, and some items of sentimental value. They made the difficult decision to leave their cats behind, but only after the firefighters assisting with the evacuation made a solemn promise that the cats would remain safe.

Once helped across the flooding parking lot and onto the buses waiting for them, Lisa was able to finally breathe. As her bus pulled out she had a view of the nearby football field and realized it had become a “giant swimming pool.”

“I had never seen anything like this,” she recounted. “ I really thought the world was ending.”

The buses took Lisa, Amanda and others from their apartment building to the nearby community church where Red Cross volunteers had set up shelter. There, the Franks were offered cots for sleeping, snacks, and meals throughout their stay – including a delicious homemade breakfast cooked the next morning by congregants of the church.

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Ice jams were the main culprit in March 2019 flooding that hit homes and families in towns including Waubeka, above, as well as Green Bay, Fond du Lac, Arcadia. (Photo: Justin Kern, American Red Cross)

Lisa admits that she didn’t expect to get much sleep given the overwhelming morning as well as medical conditions that caused her discomfort. But by evening, she “curled up on the cot and slept like a million bucks.”

In describing their experience while at the shelter, Lisa remarked that from the moment they arrived, “everything was handled perfectly; so perfectly, it felt like it was a drill.” She believes the quality of support and compassion extended by everyone she met is what helped she and Amanda get through the experience.


The Red Cross works with families in the days and weeks after a disaster to make sure they’ve connected with any resources available to them during the intensive recovery process. If you’d like to get involved in the response or recovery efforts with your neighbors in need, please consider joining the Red Cross as a volunteer. Take that first step by clicking here.


 

Of biggest concern to Lisa were the medications she needed to control her chronic conditions. She suffers from congestive heart failure, as well as painful rheumatoid arthritis requiring the aid of a walker. While she grabbed her medications from her apartment before evacuating, she had additional prescriptions that were due for a refill. She explained this to the Red Cross volunteers who greeted her upon arrival at the shelter and immediately set about assessing her needs.

“One of the volunteers went out to the pharmacy and picked up a prescription I needed that very day; without it I wouldn’t have been able to function,” said Lisa. “Yet next thing I knew she showed up and handed me the bag with my medication. I don’t know who she is, but I’m still so grateful for what she did.”

Zyler and Michelle GB shelter Saturday D&M Productions

Volunteer Dennis Hildebrand, right, chats with Michele Whittington and her son, Zyler, during their stay at a shelter in Green Bay during March floods. (Photo: Justin Kern, American Red Cross)

Lisa shared that her daughter, Amanda, is autistic and suffers from epilepsy and ADHD, which can make traumatic experiences especially challenging. Yet the kindness with which she was treated while in shelter again had a profound effect on Lisa. Thanks to the volunteers’ way of talking to and engaging with Amanda, Lisa felt a sense of pride in how well Amanda acclimated to the situation.

“The amount of kindness the Red Cross showed us is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced,” says Lisa. “It was my first time working with the Red Cross, and everyone was simply incredible.”

In total during March flooding, 106 Red Cross volunteers worked with partners to open four shelters, one reception center and one multi-agency resource center; provided comfort and respite for more than 140 people; served more than 1,200 meals and distributed approximately 720 clean-up kits.

The day after the flooding in Fond du Lac, the Franks were cleared to return to their apartments – which included their grateful cats. Their apartments were spared any water damage, although their car, which was parked outside, was deemed a total loss due to water damage. Lisa is currently working to save up enough money to purchase a replacement car. Aside from that inconvenience, life has essentially returned to normal for the Frank family.

When asked to sum up her flooding experience, Lisa says that without the help and support of the Red Cross, she and her daughter could never have handled it as well as they did. She pointed out, with a laugh, that between the bus ride to and from the shelter, the lodging, the meals, and the opportunity to meet others, the experience felt almost like a “vacation” – although a “weird, surreal and unplanned vacation!”

Amanda has a slightly different take on the experience: “It was like a vacation you did not want to take!” Yet both mother and daughter are grateful for all the ways in which the Red Cross helped them navigate a difficult situation.

Wisconsin’s Longest Tornado Leaves a Path of Disaster

Early evening on May 16, 2017, a deadly tornado cycle took aim on Barron and Rusk counties in northern Wisconsin. The EF-3 twister with winds of at least 140 miles per hour ran for 83 miles which makes it Wisconsin’s longest tornado since modern documentation began in 1950. The storm damaged 231 homes and four commercial buildings.

The storms epicenter was the Prairie Lakes Estates mobile home in Chetek and the Jennie-O turkey farm were tossed, turned, stripped and shattered to pieces. Leaving 40 homes destroyed, one person dead and 35 injured. Across county lines, in Rusk County, Conrath was hit the second hardest from the same tornado.

The American Red Cross quickly set up two reception centers at Mosaic Telecom in Cameron, the Ladysmith Sheriff’s Department first and then the Holy Trinity Church in downtown Conrath. Red Cross Disaster Responders from all over Wisconsin rushed in to support the shelter conduct damage assessment, work one-on-one with clients including by providing financial support, replacing medications and equipment to providing an emotional support to those left temporarily homeless.

For the Rutledge family, the trauma of the storm was multi-faceted. The family huddled in their mobile home before it broke apart and thrown across the earth. One member of the family was transported to Regis Hospital with life-threatening injuries. While looking at the remains of their home, they heard noises. Garnering the attention of first responders, they lifted twisted metal, shattered wood and through insulation carefully, quickly – yet carefully – through the remains. When their bunny “Racer” was in the arms of the family, they knew not all was lost.

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Three generations of the Rutledge family, Mary, Deeann & Cynthia embrace Racer, the rabbit after he was rescued from the mobile home which collapsed upon him in the Chetek tornado. (Barbara Behling, American Red Cross)

See American Red Cross Wisconsin Chapters Flickr site for more photos.

Our largest Multi-agency Resource Center, often called a “one-stop shop” for residents, was spearheaded by the Red Cross. For two days, Mosaic Telecom hosted 26 agencies.  These agencies provided assistance ranging from; rent assistance, security deposits, furniture, household supplies, food, clothing and much more. Each attendee started with the Red Cross caseworkers to help people create personal recovery plans, navigate paperwork, and locate assistance for their specific disaster-caused needs.

Non-profit, government and community organizations included:

  • American Red Cross
  • Habitat for Humanity ReStore
  • Barron County DSI
  • Red Cedar Church
  • Rural Development – USDA
  • Salvation Army
  • St. Vincent de Paul
  • United Way 211
  • WestCap
  • WI Judicare
  • Workforce Resources
  • Public Health
  • Benjamin’s House – Emergency Shelter
  • Citizens Connected
  • Johnson Insurance
  • Mosaic Telecom
  • Ruby’s Closet
  • USDA Rural Development
  • Wisconsin Works
  • Housing and Urban Development
  • Barron County Veterans Service

The Red Cross has also trucked in rakes, gloves, masks, googles, bug spray and plastic bags to help in the clean-up process.

For Polk County resident, Sue Ames-Lillie, this was the first MARC she has been to, even though she has responded to hundreds of residential fires. She recalls one mother and child in particular. “The mother was battling stage-4 cancer and yet she still had the strength to carry her son upon arrival. After striking a conversation, I learned he had lost his favorite toy.” Sue ushered them in for lunch, then offered clothing along with other items provided by multiple resources. “Permission was granted to take him to a special area where toys and stuffed animals were waiting for children. His frown turned to a smile and this is how I will forever remember this day” Sue shares with gleaming eyes.

Local and regional trained disaster responders were on-scene immediately and knowing an out pouring of community support would swell, the Red Cross activated 26 ‘event based volunteers’ who worked alongside 64 registered Red Cross workers (90 total) to provide:

  • 2, 117 meals & snacks served
  • 1,721 personal hygiene kits and cleanup items distributed
  • 213 individuals met with and assisted
  • 302 health services visits
  • 78 mental health services visits

 

Moving forward the Red Cross is a partner in the Barron County long-term recovery process to ensure community resiliency is achieved. Our community education team will also be available to area schools and groups to share emergency preparedness information such as The Pillowcase Project for grade school kids.

Overall, the Barron County Sherriff’s Department estimates about $10 million in damages. The Rusk County Sheriff said their area sustained heavy damage to public and private properties, including homes and rural farms.

Get a Behind-the-Scenes Read about Deb Harrington!

In the world of Disaster Response and planning things happen very quickly and our Disaster Response Volunteers need to be prepared to report to the scene and offer assistance. They need to have the correct paperwork in their bags and supplies—comfort kits, sweat suits, quilts in their vehicles.

We have a solid core of 50 Emergency Responders that cover the 10 Counties that make up the BIG 10 Area. Deb Harrington has developed processes and methods to keep all of us straight. She maintains casework files locally so help can continue being provided and makes sure that copies of financial records are sent to the Milwaukee office for payments. She has reorganized the files in the Disaster Office so the Team Captains can come in and restock with no problem. She accepted the position of co-lead of Mass Care and is Captain of a response team that is on call every 6 weeks from 6pm to 6am.

Deb has been very patient and kind no matter what is asked of her. She is a talented smart business woman who has put her skills to good use working behind the scenes. The whole team knows to go to Deb to find anything that is needed. This is such a vital role because once a call comes in everyone and everything is moving quickly and more times than not something changes. Deb is always there to support her fellow volunteers.

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Deb Harrington, third from right, with her Behind-the-Scenes Award. Also in the picture: Scott Vanidestine, Judy Irwin Gregory & Nancy Stolz Mirhashemi.

Congratulations Deb Harrington in being honored with the 2013
Behind-the-Scenes Volunteer Award.

2012 Disaster Response Statistics

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