Tornadoes, power outages, extreme heat and an explosion: how Red Cross ‘helped our communities’

Story and photos by Justin Kern, American Red Cross

Elizabeth Arnold forked into another bite of spaghetti in red sauce Tuesday afternoon in the cafeteria at Menominee Tribal School in Neopit. Just moments before, Arnold and others eating in the lunch room applauded at the announcement by officials that power had been fully restored for the first time since Friday’s wild storms.

Elizabeth Arnold Laurel Russ Tribal School meal select July 23 2019

American Red Cross volunteers Laurel Cooper, left, and Russ Van Skike serve up a warm, tasty meal of pasta to Elizabeth Arnold on Tuesday in Neopit.

“This is the first warm meal I’ve had since Friday,” Arnold said between bites of pasta.

The American Red Cross partnered with Salvation Army and leaders from the Menominee Nation and Menominee County to serve the lunch for dozens of families on Tuesday. The groups also provided information on power outage preparedness and dealing with food spoilage. It was part of an ongoing, statewide response by the Red Cross, which kicked off in earnest with an explosion in Madison on Friday morning and then continued into the week following thunderstorms, hail, small tornadoes and extreme heat that blasted across Wisconsin.

The Red Cross has established, partnered with or supported approximately 14 reception centers – located along the path of storms and destruction from Neopit to Mishicot, from Appleton to Waupaca, and from Madison to Balsam Lake – for residents in need of water, snacks, power and sometimes meals and showers. Through Tuesday afternoon, the Red Cross had provided nearly 1,400 hot and pre-packaged meals along with 570 cases of water across the state. Operations have also been set up to help with sheltering of clean-up partners like Team Rubicon in Langlade County and canteening for search and rescue teams in Menominee County. From Friday into Saturday, volunteers ran a cooling shelter at the Alliant Energy Center as the city of Madison dealt with a power station explosion that knocked out electricity during the brunt of a heat wave. Roles at Red Cross have been predominately run by a team of approximately 50 volunteers. Gov. Tony Evers has declared a State of Emergency from the storms. In partnership with county, state and tribal leaders, the Red Cross remains committed to bringing immediate needs and resources to residents affected by this devastating wave of storms.

From bottom right Emmeretta Corn Chantel Alveshive Kewascum Rosie Ricky Lee Stalla Joseph Tribal School July 2019

The whole family shares a laugh at youthful antics Tuesday during a lunch served at Menominee Tribal School. Pictured are, from bottom right, Emmeretta Corn, Chantel Alveshive, Kewascum, 4, Rosie, 3, Ricky Lee, 8, Stalla, 2, and Joseph, 4. 

After her meal, Arnold, a Menominee County board supervisor, loaded up extra meals into her truck to take to neighbors in Keshena also dealing with outages and unable to make the Tuesday lunch service. She turned to Red Cross volunteers: “Thank you for everything. You really helped our communities out.”

Elsewhere on Tuesday, remnants of sheer winds and some of the verified tornadoes remained very present, like in Elderon, where trees were pulled from the ground with densely exposed roots and earth, and in Knowlton, where barn siding was ripped off and coiled across properties. At the fire department in Rosholt, volunteers have kept the doors open 24 hours for people in need of water, showers and somewhere to plug in. Here, the Red Cross has played a support role with water while keeping in contact with Portage County officials on immediate needs. Rosholt F.D. Chief Greg Michelkamp said the department generator had been cranking full-time since Saturday and that he hoped his neighbors would have the lights back on soon, for risk of longer term needs like sheltering or mass feeding.


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In Appleton on Monday, one of two reception center sites operated from a community room at the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Department. There, a family of three recharged phones and contacted family via text and social media. KaZoua Lee scrolled through Facebook and said it was nice to have a place to plug back in and “let people know” they were OK, even without power for a few days. The three listened as a neighbor shared her stories of the storm and subsequent outage while her phone juiced up. Volunteer Sharon Holt of Combined Locks said the stories were typical from the more than 150 people who paced in and out of the center since Sunday morning.

Knowlton barn siding tornado July 2019

A confirmed tornado from weekend storms peeled off siding from this barn in Knowlton, Wisc.

Blocks from the Appleton site, mangled trees lined residential neighborhoods on either side of Highway 47, especially around the Erb Park area. City crews and electric company line workers were always within view or earshot. Neighbors likened this damage to the storms and weak tornados in 2016. David Williams, a Service to the Armed Forces volunteer with the Red Cross, was himself still running off a neighbor’s generator as he cleared away a smashed fence and broken tree limbs. Williams said he and his mother were lucky to have such community support.

“A lot of damage, but we’ll be alright,” Williams said.

Red Cross will continue to partner with local and state agencies in the days and weeks ahead as our neighbors continue their recovery.

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