As a Wisconsin National Guard mission to distribute water in Langlade County concludes, more National Guard troops are on their way to Polk and Barron Counties to assist with debris removal and chainsaw operations as the recovery continues in the aftermath of damaging winds and severe weather that cut a wide swath of devastation across northern Wisconsin.
Approximately 25 Wisconsin Army National Guard Soldiers mobilized to state active duty this week to assist civil authorities in Langlade County with water distribution efforts in the wake of the storms July 19-20 that left more than 100,000 people without power.
Now more are on their way with chainsaws and other heavy equipment to help clear roadways and other critical infrastructure of debris.
Soldiers received the request for assistance in Langlade County late July 21 after Gov. Tony Evers signed Executive Order 35, declaring a state of emergency. The declaration authorized Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general, to mobilize Wisconsin National Guard elements and other state resources to assist.
Within hours, teams were established from multiple units in the 132nd Brigade Support Battalion including Company E from Antigo, and Company F in Mosinee.
Early Monday morning, those teams were on the road to Langlade County to distribute water to residents in need of septic system flushes, showers, and drinking water.
“It feels really good to be able to do this, especially with the surrounding community,” Capt. Kurtis Larson, the commander of Company E in Antigo, and officer-in-charge of the mission, said. “We drill here one weekend a month, and we don’t usually get to do so much stuff where we get to just focus on the community. To be located here helping Langlade County and the Antigo area feels pretty good.”
Larson said his team distributed water to more than 900 gallons of water to nearly 90 residents from five different water distribution sites around Langlade County.
“They have been very grateful that the Guard is out there helping out and giving them water,” he said. “A lot of people are just thankful to have normal stuff that you don’t think about throughout your daily life but is really important such as flushable water, being able to take a shower, wash the dishes. It’s just the little things that have been helping make feel a lot better.”
Larson said the devastation is difficult to describe.
“The best way to describe it is that some of the pine plantations just look like broken off toothpicks, and we’re talking some massive trees,” he said.
Maj. Paul Cusick, who is serving as a liaison officer for the Wisconsin National Guard in northwest Wisconsin, observed similar sights.
“It’s devastating. I saw a 40-acre red pine plantation just absolutely snapped off at 12 feet,” Cusick said. “It was like a lawnmower went through there at a 12 foot height.”
The Soldiers that responded acted in true Citizen Soldier fashion – putting their lives on hold with little to no notice and mobilizing when their communities were in need. Such responses are exactly the types of missions for which the National Guard is designed.
“We got called at like 10 p.m. Sunday night,” said. Spc. Alison Stieber, a Soldier assigned to Company F, 132nd Brigade Support Battalion in Mosinee. “I didn’t hesitate saying yes at all. This is my third activation. Just knowing that doing different things and helping different parts of the state, it means a lot to us – and I know it means more to them – but for us to help them means a lot personally to me.
“It’s what we signed up to do, and that’s what we’re here for – to help them,” she added.
Larson held a similar sentiment.
“Part of the reason that I am in the Guard is not just doing our federal mission but being able to help people,” he said. “So the fact that the Guard gets the opportunity when these disasters happen and people need assistance for us to be able to transition from a federal mission to a state mission. It is something that, sometimes the timelines aren’t as long as you would like, but being able to get out and help people and see the damage and see how appreciative they are, it’s one of those things that really separates the Guard from the other services.”
In some cases, the Soldiers – many of whom hail from the same communities – volunteered to mobilize despite dealing with the storm’s effects at their own homes. That was the case for Sgt. Corey Zarda, also from Company F and a resident of Mattoon just east of Antigo, whose family lost power for multiple days.
“It’s just nice to see what we’re doing is helping the area out in a bad situation,” he said. “From my family being out of power for two days from the storm, I can see how the bare essentials like water help out a rural area that relies on power even for water.”
Same for Cusick, a Spooner native that now lives in Madison.
“Spooner is my hometown,” he said. “I was here in 2012 for that straight line wind event over there that was more in the Washburn and Burnett area. I’m coming back like seven years later. My sister was directly impacted by the storm. She was out of power for four days. So it’s a high sense of accomplishment to be up here in your hometown.”
Cusick spent the past two days setting the stage for the National Guard’s next mission, which began today in Polk and Barron Counties, where debris assessment teams made up of National Guard engineers will develop a scope of work for follow-on missions to remove debris from roadways and other sensitive areas in those counties.
Beginning on July 26, engineers from 32nd “Red Arrow” Infantry Brigade Combat Team’s 173rd Brigade Engineer Battalion will deploy to Polk and Barron Counties to begin debris removal.
Meanwhile, Airmen from the Wisconsin Air National Guard will also arrive in Polk County July 26 to conduct chainsaw and debris removal operations.
Efforts to bring those additional resources in were the result of face-to-face conversations between people like Cusick and local civil authorities over the past few days, who worked hand-in-hand to identify critical needs and shortfalls where state resources such as the National Guard could assist.
“It’s great wearing the uniform,” Cusick said. “People recognize that, and they know where you’re from. It’s kind of a calming sense. I got a call this morning from one of the highway commissioners saying, ‘hey we just talked about this this morning, and now I’m getting calls from state saying let’s tailor this thing and get it done.’ He just called me to say ‘thanks’ saying ‘my conversation with you is resonating in the reports,’ and that’s a really great feeling knowing that you can help facilitate those.”
The mission to deliver water in Langlade County concluded July 24, but debris removal operations are just beginning in Polk and Barron Counties. The National Guard stands ready to assist civil authorities with additional requests, as needed.