Recovery and repair efforts continue in northwest Wisconsin with the assistance of more than 70 members of the Wisconsin National Guard who have been called to state active duty to assist local agencies in areas that were affected by major flooding and damaging winds last month.
Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency for nine Wisconsin counties and one tribal government in the wake of the July 11 storms, which authorizes Wisconsin’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, to call National Guard forces to state active duty to assist local authorities with recovery efforts.
Serving on state active duty in times of emergency is at the core of the National Guard's unique dual-mission as the first military responder in the homeland and as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force.
Elements of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 724th Engineer Battalion headquartered in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin — and specifically the Prairie Du Chien and Platteville, Wisconsin-based 229th Engineer Company — along with route clearance teams from the Wisconsin Air National Guard’s Madison, Wisconsin-based 115th Fighter Wing and Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing make up the task force responding to the request for Guard assistance.
Maj. Joseph Davison, Executive Officer with the 724th Engineer Battalion, 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade (MEB), has been serving as the Joint Task Force-Engineer Commander for this state active duty operation. The task force includes members from both the Air and Army National Guard who have been working on debris clean up and road repair at multiple sites within Iron, Ashland and Bayfield Counties.
Davison elaborated on the work that the National Guard is currently completing.
“We’ve really had two major missions since we’ve been up here for these past couple weeks,” said Davison. “With the debris removal we’ve operated in six townships and Bayfield County, and now this week we’re working in Saxon Harbor. The other mission we’ve had is road repair of damaged township roads both in Bayfield and Ashland Counties. That’s the mission that requires the most extensive work and we know that we may be asked to do that for a while longer.”
2nd Lt. Amanda Dickenson, an aircraft maintenance officer with the 115th Fighter Wing, and the Air liaison officer working to coordinate between the Airmen and Soldiers serving on this state active duty mission, discussed the joint mission for the Air and Army National Guard Units.
“A lot of what we are doing is facilitating Army operations so that they can get in and do what they need to do more efficiently,” said Dickenson. “The Air Guard’s primary mission has been debris cleanup which allows the Army units to come in after and complete the road repair missions.”
Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Grams with the 950th Engineer Company, 724th Engineer Battalion, 157th MEB, is the non-commissioned officer in charge of a crew that is currently working in Saxon Harbor and discussed how supportive the people they are helping and working alongside have been.
“Anyone we have dealt with, whether they are the civilian contractors, the local populous, or local officials have been supportive, have worked with us, have thanked us continually for whatever support we can give,” said Grams. “We’ve told them we’ll do whatever we can as long as we’re here.”
Currently the recovery efforts involve debris clean up at Saxon Harbor and road repair in Ashland County. The Wisconsin National Guard continues to monitor the situation in Northwest Wisconsin to coordinate and provide timely responses to civil authorities as requested.
On August 9, Gov. Walker announced a Federal Emergency Management Agency major disaster declaration for eight northern Wisconsin counties and the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe. Gov. Walker issued the following statement on the federal disaster declaration:
“This declaration allows local governments affected by the July floods to apply for assistance, which will help communities recover some of the costs incurred through fighting the floods and repairing infrastructure such as roads and removing debris,” Walker said. “We will continue to work with the communities to help them quickly recover from the flooding.”
Davison discussed the need to prioritize the efforts of the National Guard units.
“While we’re here we want to make the most impact we can in the highest priority areas,” he said. “Restoring access and ensuring that school buses are able to travel in safe routes and EMS services, postal services, all those things that are essential to communities are what we are trying to focus on.”
Local Saxon Harbor resident Grace Hines stated she now sees a future for restoring the area especially with the aid of the National Guard.
“There is hope beyond hope,” said Hines. “It’s a great thing. It’s certainly helping us.”
To date Wisconsin National Guard Soldiers and Airmen have assisted the people and communities of northwest Wisconsin with debris removal in Bayfield County (Barksdale, Port Wing, Tripp, Eileen, Pilsen, and Iron River), Sawyer County (Spider Lake), Ashland County (Marengo), and Iron County (Saxon Harbor). Guard engineers have completed road repairs in Bayfield County’s Lincoln Township, and continue road damage repair projects in Marengo and Ashland.
Previously, a team of approximately two dozen Wisconsin National Guard engineers from the 724th Engineer Battalion previously assisted the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in completing road damage assessments in July and provided their findings to Wisconsin Emergency Management. Those teams assessed more than 180 sites in Sawyer, Washburn, and Bayfield counties after eight to 12 inches of rain fell in a matter of hours across the region July 12. Local authorities requested assistance from the Guard to assess restoring infrastructure to damaged town roads in more rural and isolated areas where local resources are limited.
Meanwhile, Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 238th Aviation, based in West Bend, Wisconsin, also assisted with the flood response when they responded July 13 to a medevac mission for five citizens of the Bad River Tribe who needed air transport to Ashland, Wisconsin, for dialysis treatment. Road access to the Bad River Reservation had been cutoff in the aftermath of the storm.
The Guard remains ready to assist local authorities and the people of northwest Wisconsin with additional missions as requested.