When severe storms with straight-line winds and tornadoes hit northern Wisconsin in late July, knocking down trees, power lines and more, the Wisconsin Army National Guard was there to help.
About 150 Guard members answered the call, three of them who are members of the ROTC program at University of Wisconsin-Stout. For about two weeks, student Alysha Stieber and staff members James Schmitz and Jared Siverling cleaned up along rural roads in areas of Barron, Polk and Langlade counties.
Those were three of the hardest-hit counties out of 17 and two Indian tribes that were affected. Gov. Tony Evers declared a state of emergency, activating the Guard. The damage has been estimated at $20 million, with the most in Polk at $3.67 million, Barron second with $2.76 million and Langlade fifth with $787,000 in damage.
Stieber, a sophomore from Marathon City, helped with two missions, first in Langlade County providing potable and nonpotable water for residents without power and then helping with cleanup in Barron and Polk counties.
“It is never easy to drop everything that is going on the civilian side, especially jobs, but when the call comes, as soldiers, we have to be ready. This is why I volunteered for these missions. I wanted to be the help that these civilians needed through this tough time for them,” Stieber said.
She worked near Antigo from July 22-24 then was reactivated from July 26 to Aug. 11 in Barron and Polk.
A private first class, she is a business administration major with a minor in military leadership and part of the Northwoods Battalion of the Army ROTC — Reserve Officer Training Corps — at UW-Stout.
She won’t forget how Guard members were greeted and thanked by homeowners around Loon Lake, a hard-hit area in Barron County. They offered the Guard cold water, ice cream and popsicles on steamy days.
“They were super happy we were there. One thing I will never forget was when a little girl and her mother came out and offered us ice cream. It turns out it was that little girl’s eighth birthday. To show our gratitude, we used the chainsaw to cut off a piece of thin wood and then carved a number eight in it and wrote ‘happy birthday’ with a Sharpie marker,” Stieber said.
Schmitz was the liaison between the Guard and county and township officials in Barron and Polk, where 87 Guard members from around the state worked 11 to 12 hours a day, six days a week for about two weeks.
The Wisconsin National Guard teams arrived July 28, about a week after the storms hit. They cleared nearly 40 miles of roadways, shoulders and ditches of debris in the counties using chainsaws, wood chippers and other equipment. They also took down damaged trees and branches that could have come down in the future and blocked roads.
“The area up around Loon Lake was pretty much as bad as I’ve seen with storm damage. Hundreds of acres of pine trees, something like 50,000 acres of wooded land, was affected. Entire plantations were either bent over or snapped off. It was pretty awe-inspiring to see how much damage there was,” Schmitz said.
“I was very happy to see how smoothly it went and how well people worked together to clear roads and accomplish the mission,” said Schmitz, an assistant professor of military science at UW-Stout who has served 21 years in the Army and Army National Guard.
In October, he is scheduled to go to Ukraine for nine months with the Joint Multinational Training Group to help the country develop its military forces.
Schmitz’s wife, Anne, is an assistant professor in the engineering and technology department at UW-Stout.
James Schmitz and Siverling are working together again on campus after having served together in 2010-11 in Iraq. Both also held the position of Army Central Command liaison officer to Oman.
Siverling, an assistant operations officer, cleared storm debris in Langlade County for about a week with the 64th Troop Command. The team of 43 Guard engineers assessed and cleared 23 miles of roads in six days at five sites.
“We are on call 24/7 365 days a year to assist citizens of the U.S. for any mission, any time, any place, stateside or overseas,” Siverling said.
He is the scholarship and enrollment officer for the ROTC Northwoods Battalion.
When the Guard’s work was done, the governor attended a special event at Unity High School in Balsam Lake, Polk County, to thank them and present them with the Wisconsin National Guard Emergency Service ribbon. See a WEAU TV 13 video here.
In the three counties, Guard members hauled away more than 13,000 tons of debris.
Alysha Stieber, third from right, and other Wisconsin National Guard members present a girl with a birthday memento made from a fallen tree while on duty this summer near Loon Lake in Barron County.
Wisconsin National Guard members, left, speak with township and county officials in Barron County during their storm cleanup operation.