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.

Portage shelter Presbyterian church May 2018

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.

Diana and David Portage shelter May 2018

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.

Carol Korra Lisa Portage fire shelter May 2018

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.

Red Cross says it needs $55,000 for flood recovery assistance

By Jen McCoy, Daily Register | Posted: Friday, October 1, 2010

Red Cross worker conduct disaster assessment in the wake of severe weather in Portage, WI. Photo Credit: American Red Cross

Before the flooding came, the American Red Cross was ready to help. The organization was present in Portage beginning Sept. 24, said Rachel Reichhoff, the community relations manager for the American Red Cross-Badger Chapter.

“We estimate that we’ll provide assistance to 60 families from cleanup kits, to physical help, to any kind of assistance. For all the flood damage, we’re going to need to raise $55,000 for recovery. It’s showing more damage than we anticipated,” she said.

Money from the organization’s Disaster Relief Fund was used to respond to the floodwaters. The fund is used by the Badger Chapter to respond to emergencies within their 13 counties at any time during the year.

“We have Columbia, Sauk, Adams and Juneau counties that have been affected in some way or another,” Reichhoff said.

Disaster partners are businesses or people who commit to make a yearly donation to the Red Cross. Area businesses that signed on as disaster partners are Saint-Gobain, which donated $3,500, Ballweg Ford, which donated $2,500, and Ho Chunk, which donated $2,500. Ho Chunk also donated $6,000 in July so the chapter could purchase a Red Cross shelter trailer, which was used during this disaster. Cardinal Glass committed to giving $3,000 for flood recovery response.

“We are needing as many businesses as we can get signed on as disaster partners because right now we only have three and we have four counties (affected),” Reichhoff said.

To date, the Red Cross has served more than 1,200 meals to volunteers and affected residents in Columbia County. It also distributed 102 clean up kits, 76 comfort kits (that include blankets, toothpaste, and deodorant), and provided shelter to 68 people. The organization also is matching people with organizations and volunteers able to help with the physical cleanup.

People can donate money to the Red Cross in several ways: Text REDCROSS to 90999 to give $10, which will be added to your mobile phone bill, send a check to American Red Cross Badger Chapter at 4860 Sheboygan Ave., Madison, WI 53705, or donate online at

For more information, or to become a disaster partner, contact Rachel Reichhoff at 355-0943. People affected by the flooding and in need of assistance may contact the Red Cross-Badger Chapter toll-free number 877-618-6628.

Red Cross Lending a Hand in Minnesota, Wisconsin As Water Continues to Rise

Monday, September 27, 2010 — The American Red Cross is on the ground in Wisconsin and Minnesota where the rains have slowed down but rivers and streams continue to rise, forcing entire neighborhoods from their homes.

In Wisconsin, a 120-year-old sand levee along the Wisconsin River near Portage, Columbia County, is failing and could affect as many as 100 homes with more damage possible as the flood waters travel south. Residents in the area were urged to leave their homes immediately. The river crested over the weekend at almost 3.5 feet above flood level, putting major pressure on the levee system. In Minnesota, some residents were allowed back in their homes only long enough to retrieve some belongings.  Rivers and streams continue to rise. The high water has closed roads, destroyed bridges and damaged homes. In some areas, inspectors may begin checking out homes and businesses to determine if they are fit for residents to return.

Chapters in both states have opened shelters and are providing meals and comfort items such as toiletries to residents forced from their homes by the rising flood waters. The Red Cross is working with local and state officials in both Wisconsin and Minnesota to ensure help is available for those who need it.

 If your neighborhood has been affected by flooding, the Red Cross has some steps you should take to remain safe:

  • Return home only when officials have declared the area safe.
  • Before entering your home, look outside for loose power lines, damaged gas lines, foundation cracks or other damage.
  • Parts of your home may be collapsed or damaged. Approach entrances carefully. See if porch roofs and overhangs have all their supports.
  • Watch out for wild animals, especially poisonous snakes that may have come into your home with the floodwater.
  • If you smell natural or propane gas or hear a hissing noise, leave immediately and call the fire department.
  • If power lines are down outside your home, do not step in puddles or standing water.
  • Keep children and pets away from hazardous sites and floodwater.

For more information on what to do if flooding threatens your community, visit make a financial donation to the Red Cross to help people affected by these disasters here in the United States and around the world, people can click, call or text – visit, call 1-800-RED CROSS, or text the word REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation. About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies nearly half of the nation’s blood; teaches lifesaving skills; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a charitable organization — not a government agency — and depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or join our blog at