Emergency funds OK’d for stricken Oconto County towns

Governor asks for federal help
Contributed photo
Thousands of trees were blown down in the July 19 macroburst that struck northern Oconto County.
Warren Bluhm
Oconto News Editor

OCONTO — Oconto County Sheriff Todd Skarban said Thursday the damage from a July 19 windstorm was the worst he’s ever seen, including the 2007 tornado that struck the Mountain area.

Skarban and Emergency Management Director Tim Magnin briefed the County Board on the aftermath of the macroburst that struck Northeast Wisconsin that night, leveling thousands of trees and leaving more than 40,000 county residents and businesses in the dark, some for as much as eight days.

The board voted to award $10,000 grants — twice as much as originally proposed — and $50,000 interest-free loans to the towns of Breed, Bagley, Brazeau, Doty, Lakewood, Mountain, Riverview and Townsend, which were hardest hit. They’ll have until Aug. 1, 2022, to pay back the loans to the county’s General Fund.

The severe weather event struck between 8-9 p.m. July 19. Among the immediate impacts: The Lakewood and Mountain radio towers went offline, crippling emergency communication efforts, Skarban said. His department’s mobile command post eventually was brought to the Mountain Ambulance Garage to serve as a temporary tower for those areas.

Beginning with trying to cut his way to a deputy whose squad car was trapped between downed trees on Old 32 Road north of Mountain, Skarban went back to work and joined dozens of volunteers to respond to the disaster.

“You could hear in his voice how much stress he was under at that point, so we started going that way,” Skarban said. “I get to Anderson Lake and realize there’s three sets of power lines down.”

The sheriff literally chainsawed his way to the deputy, joined by local firefighters and workers from the county highway department, who would be working together for the next several hours and days to clear roads and get help to people who needed it.

The main roads were clear by 4:15 a.m. July 20, Skarban said, and after a short rest local officials held the first of what would become daily meetings at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. to report on progress and set the agenda for the day.

“I can’t believe how well all of our department heads all came together, all of our state resources came together, of course the governor showed up (July 22) … and asked what we needed,” Magnin said. “We requested what we wanted; we didn’t get everything we wanted but we got some, because it was pretty widespread, the whole state was dealing with these storms.”

The Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Forest Service contributed bulldozer and cutting crews to help town and county officials with the recovery, Magnin said. Fire departments from all over the county, not just the affected towns, sent volunteers, he added.

As of Friday, the estimate for public-sector costs associated with the storm statewide was $14.3 million. In addition to the macroburst — defined as an intense small-scale downdraft produced by a thunderstorm — that hit Oconto County, at least 19 tornadoes were reported around Wisconsin that night.

At the July 22 meeting, “The largest concern for the townships was ‘Oh my God, how are we going to pay for this?’” Skarban said, telling Administrative Coordinator Kevin Hamann, “If there’s going to be a calming influence, it’ll be the answer to that question.”

Hamann went to work drafting the proposal that the County Board eventually approved. Committees began reviewing and recommending aspects of the funding package on July 24.

Gov. Tony Evers on Friday requested the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to conduct a preliminary damage assessment later this month for 19 Wisconsin counties and tribes hit hard by severe storms, flooding, straight line winds and tornadoes. This is the first step in potentially requesting federal disaster aid for local governments as they recover from the storms.

The Oconto County Economic Development Corp. set up a GoFundMe page to gather private donations toward a professional logging service to clean up the county and state trail system in the northern part of the county.

“The blowdown damage was incredible … The response to this natural disaster was rapid and impactful,” Skarban said. “The amount of pride that I take in what we did, as a team and as a group, it does my heart good to know that I live here.”