ASHLAND, Wis. – Like many residents of northwest Wisconsin, Shawn Sederholm, a chief warrant officer three in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, awoke the morning of July 12 stranded by floodwaters.
Road access to his home in Ashland County, Wisconsin, was cut off thanks to torrential rains that dropped eight to 12 inches of rain across the region in a matter of hours and led to major flooding that washed out roadways and scattered debris across the area.
Gov. Scott Walker declared a state of emergency July 12 authorizing Wisconsin’s adjutant general to call more than 75 Wisconsin National Guard members to state active duty in early August to assist communities in the region with road repair and debris removal.
Sederholm, who drills as property book officer with the Milwaukee-based Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 157th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, was one of them, and he brought a unique first-person perspective to his role in the Guard’s ongoing road repair and debris removal mission.
“It was all washed out,” he said of the initial days following the rains that began late July 11. “It was four days before we could even get out of our driveway, and then even if we could, the road was gone on both sides of the driveway. So, even if we could, there was nowhere to go.”
Sederholm spoke about the Wisconsin National Guard’s commitment to assisting and supporting the people and local authorities of northwest Wisconsin and about how meaningful it is to serve the community he calls home.
While many of the Soldiers and Airmen lending a helping hand to the people of northwest Wisconsin are from other parts of the state, some National Guard Soldiers and Airmen hail from the very communities affected by the storms. Those connections only deepen the National Guard’s commitment to helping affected communities get back to normal as quickly as possible.
The National Guard fulfills a unique dual-mission as the state’s first military responder in times of emergency and as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force. Whatever the mission, Sederholm said, the Wisconsin National Guard is ready.
“Doing our state mission is no different than going to war – whatever we’re asked to do – grab a shovel, go drive a truck, or go grab your gun,” said Sederholm. “The good part of the state mission is being able to communicate to the public that we’re here to help the community, but it’s even better in my case being right in my own community doing this work.”
“It feels good to help the community,” he added. “It’s like normally being able to help out the state on a mission, but it’s that much better to have it be local in your hometown. The community appreciates it that I’m out there helping out in uniform.”
The scale and scope of the devastation to the infrastructure in northwest Wisconsin is estimated to be in excess of $25 million.
Grace Hines has lived in Saxon Harbor, Wisconsin, since 1974 and owns the Harbor Lights tavern, which overlooks the now destroyed Saxon Harbor Marina and Community Campground.
“We had rain in the morning, and then it kind of subsided and then it started about 4 or 5 p.m., and it grew in intensity and by 7 p.m. it was absolutely Biblical rains really,” Hines said. “It was just awful, and the lightning and thunder, I don't think I've ever seen it like that. It was just relentless with the lightning and thunder and the rain coming down.
“It was unbelievable,” she continued. “The first time that I walked down there was 6 o’clock in the morning. It was nothing I could believe – with boats piled on top of boats and the water going so fast. There was nothing we could do. It was a helpless feeling.”
Corinne Ofstad-Blomberg currently lives in Hurley, Wisconsin, but was born and raised in Saxon, Wisconsin. She expressed her gratitude and respect for the Guard members currently assisting in rebuilding her community.
“It is really great to see the National Guard here helping,” said Ofstad-Blomberg. “I have so much respect for them and all that they do. I respect them because of the work they’re doing and the sacrifices they are making to be here — meaning they aren’t at home with their families.
“They have been doing an awesome job helping with the cleanup efforts,” she said. “The community appreciates it because it’s helping to rebuild what was lost.”
The Soldiers and Airmen currently assisting with recovery efforts in the region hail largely from units assigned to the Army National Guard’s 724th Engineer Battalion, based in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, and the Air National Guard’s Madison, Wisconsin-based 115th Fighter Wing and Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing.
Engineers from the 724th Engineer Battalion’s 229th Engineer Company, based in Prairie Du Chien and Platteville, Wisconsin, are focused on restoring service to damaged local and town roads, while engineers from the Air Guard are focused on debris removal.
In the month since the storms that caused severe damage to northwest Wisconsin, Wisconsin Emergency Management, the National Guard and other state and federal agencies have expended a massive amount of effort devoted to cleaning up and restoring affected infrastructure, but plenty of work remains.
The Guard remains ready to assist local authorities and the people of northwest Wisconsin with additional missions as requested.
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. 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.