When a line of severe thunderstorms swept through northern Wisconsin July 19, spawning tornados and straight line winds that tore through swaths of forestland, one of the hardest hit communities was Elcho in Langlade County.
In an interview Wednesday, Elcho town chair Gary Johnson expressed frustration over bureaucratic difficulties associated with the clean-up process. At the time of the interview, the town had received little assistance from the state and Langlade County, he said.
The town began recovery efforts right after the storm passed the evening of July 19 but the state and county were slow to provide assistance, according to Johnson.
"The county sheriff's department has been good, they were here day one," Johnson said. "There has been some communication breakdown through the emergency response and management on the state level, especially. They haven't even contacted me, and I don't know, maybe the numbers I have aren't the right numbers, but I haven't been able to reach them, either."
When asked if he thinks Elcho has been overlooked in terms of disaster assistance, he replied in the affirmative.
"That's my personal feeling, yes," Johnson replied.
He said the bulk of the volunteers through Wednesday had come from Elcho, Summit Lake and Pelican Lake. Some from Antigo started arriving on Tuesday.
The command post for the clean-up effort is at the Elcho Fire Station which, despite losing part of its roof during the storm, is able to provide showers for residents and electricity for those who need it for oxygen machines and other medical devices.
The bulk of the heavy equipment being used in the effort has been provided by local contractors and logging companies. While the help of local businesses and their equipment is great, the town is in desperate need of more heavy equipment, Johnson said.
"We need the state to send equipment," Johnson said. "We need trucks to haul brush, with grapples that can pick the brush up. We've got most of the stuff pushed to the side, but we've still got to get it moved. We need chippers, large equipment sized chippers where we feed big logs and blow it (the chips) into the woods. We need to clean up the debris, and it needs to be chain saws and equipment."
Governor Tony Evers toured the areas of storm damage by helicopter and on foot on Tuesday.
"As far as I know, he came nowhere near Elcho," Jonson said. "If he did, it would be the first I've heard of it."
Johnson said he was amazed there were no injuries as a direct result of the storm, and there have been only two ambulance calls since then. One was for a person experiencing an anxiety attack, the other was a chainsaw accident during cleanup.
"I think that's pretty amazing in itself," he said.
With power out, many homes have not been able to access water from town lines or private wells. Numerous area businesses have been donating water to the recovery effort, Johnson said as he gestured toward numerous pallets of bottled water stacked in the town's fire station.
"You see a lot of water here, and we've passed out more then you see," Johnsons said. "Walmart, Menards, Fleet Farm, the Coke distributor, the Pepsi distributer, Dollar General and several independent people have donated pallets of water. We've been going door-to-door with our EMS and our fire department and volunteers carrying cases of water."
He said the town has also been sending a tanker around to fill buckets for residents for non-potable water to be used for such tasks as flushing toilets.
"The governor sent us a tanker with about 300 gallons with two National Guard guys. They didn't have containers and they wouldn't go door-to-door, and they parked right on the Wolf River near Post Lake," Johnson added. "We can get all the non-potable water right out of the lake there, if it came to that. It wasn't doing us any good. And nobody called to ask us what we needed and nobody has responded to my calls. Again, maybe I have the wrong contacts, and I apologize for that, but I'm not getting any response."
Johnson said the state forestry department is helping the county road crews in getting downed trees and other debris off country roads.
"We finally got the power lines off the county roads, so they were able to do some clearing on the county roads," Johnson said. "And there is a group tied to the state that is doing brush. They brought a chipper and they have chainsaw crews that is working at on Post Lake. Up until today, we didn't see any help, but we're seeing it now, and we're very grateful for that."
Lisa Owen, an EMT with the Elcho Fire Department who has been one of the volunteer coordinators, said the support from people from surrounding areas has been huge.
"To come help our community in our time of need, it's just incredible," Owen said.
"The community itself has just pulled together," he said. "I've never seen anything like this where a group has come together to get so much done in so little time with so little resources as I've seen this community do right now."
Johnson said most full-time residents and those whose homes are in the more developed areas of the township had their power restored as of Wednesday afternoon.
"That number is getting to be really minimal right now. Most of the places that don't have power are the outlying dead end roads where they still have not buried the lines," Johnson said. "But not any full-time residents. The power utility has done a tremendous job, I would have thought it would be weeks before we would have gotten power, but they did it in days. So I'm impressed."
He said the Wisconsin Public Service crews have been augmented by crews brought in "from several states." Johnson said it is his understanding that utility crews are just patching the lines in several areas for the time being.
"They're going to have to do a major reconstruction on a lot of what we have in the area," he said.
While many homes suffered some damage from falling trees, the damage is widespread throughout the township.
"I can show you whole plantations of trees that are down," Johnson said. "I can show you seven or eight acres of forest that is completely flat in different areas. I've been around most of my life between Rhinelander and here and I have never seen the devastation in this area that I've seen right here and now."
"There is about a 28-mile stretch, if I'm not mistaken, that starts just west and north of Rhinelander a little bit and went southeast," he added. "We're kind of right in the middle of it, both us and Pickerel appear to have the most damage from it."
Johnson said the town is providing food for residents and volunteers at the town pavilion. He said Trig's, in particular, has been giving the town good deals on the food that is being served.
"When this initially started, none of the restaurants had any power and the stores didn't have power," he said. "Now we've got so many people working in the area trying to help, they're helping us and we're trying to help them. Today we're even taking the food and water right out to the crews in bulk to keep them going."
Another problem for Elcho residents is the lack of electricity and refrigeration caused food to spoil.
"We have dumpsters set up all through the town, and people that had refrigerators and freezers full of food they had to throw away can dispose of it in them," Johnson said. "It's a major waste, and there is nothing that can be done about it, obviously."
Johnson believes it is going to take years for Elcho to recover from the damage the storm caused.
"As each passing day goes by, it will be easier to deal with, but the actual cleanup - with the resources that I have available and the money I have available to do it - I don't know if I can get there in a short amount of time," Johnson said.
Like most small towns, Elcho has a bare bones budget, and the clean-up effort has made short work of what Johnson had to run the town.
"This storm took up any money that I would have had set aside for road repair that we have been in desperate need of," he said. "I already had in progress before this storm hit trying to get a referendum drafted to allow us to raise our levy limit specifically for roads for a 10-year period. I didn't have enough money to fix the roads to begin with, and I've got areas now where the stumps have uprooted and taken part of the road out and we will have to blacktop that. And some of the roads I couldn't fix before is even worse. I'm not complaining, but I've seen damage from some of the equipment that's in here, but they have a job to do, too. It's more important to me to see power and the clearing of brush then worry about the cost of the road right now."
Because Gov. Evers declared a state of disaster for a portion of the storm-damaged areas, including Elcho, some state money is expected.
"I expect some money, but the way their program works, they expect documentation and tracking and reporting in the time frame you have to work with are extremely difficult for elected officials who don't really have the background to have what it takes to get through the bureaucracy to do it," Johnson said. "Yes there will be money available, I'm pretty sure of that. Will we get what we need out of it? I'm pretty sure we won't. Will we get everything we need if I had the right information? Probably not. There's just so much that doesn't work with the way the system is."
"Emergency response should mean, the disaster is now, we (state aid) should be here now. Not five days after it's over," he added.
Johnson noted that immediately after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the emergency management system was upgraded but since then it appears to have fallen into disuse.
He said he made contact with State Senator Tom Tiffany (R-Minocqua) and State Rep. Mary Felzkowski (R-Irma) on Wednesday to seek contact information for state agencies.
On Friday morning, a press spokesperson for Ever's office confirmed that the governor's office has been in contact with Johnson and assured him that assistance is being sent.
Johnson said the National Guard contacted him directly on Thursday and that guardsmen and heavy equipment have arrived to assist with the clean-up efforts. He added that the American Red Cross has also arrived and has taken over the preparation of meals being provided to residents and relief workers. He said the recent media coverage of Elcho's plight has helped get the proper state agencies to contact him.
"The one thing I would like to see come out of this is that, to cut through the bureaucracy, there be one number you contact in the state for emergency response," Johnson said. "Oneida County has an outstanding Emergency Management program and director (Ken Kortenhof). I have seen him out in the field all week since Oneida County is adjacent to us. What I would like to see is for him to conduct a three-county workshop to explore ways we can all improve our efforts in emergency management to eliminate the bureaucracy that is counterproductive at a time like this."
Johnson also noted that a fund was created by CoVantage Credit Union for people to make monetary donations.
People looking to volunteer with the clean-up effort can call Johnson at Johnson at 715-610-4445, Owen at 715-216-4335, Paul Gray at 715-610-0011 or Ryan Siemers at 715-216-0678.
Posted: Monday, July 29, 2019
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Took a ride through Elcho last week and it truly is a tragic devastating sight. I am hopeful that everyone will recover from the trauma, but unfortunately, some folks will carry long lasting, if not permanent scars, some physically and many more emotionally. Itís unfortunate, but understandable, that the State of Wisconsin has not responded the way the Elcho town chairman, and many others would like. This is what weíve asked for. We have consistently put people in office who cut taxes and government services. The poor, both urban and rural are the first to feel the effects of the cuts, but sooner or later it will have an effect on all of us. The plight of the Elcho is but one example.
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