Commentary: While Emergency Crews Dealt Triage, Residents Stepped In
By Brandi Makuski
It’s a strange and uncomfortable experience, observing emergency crews stretched beyond their capacity.
But such was the case on June 12. City officials had just sat down for their monthly committee meetings at the Lincoln Center when the storm hit. Lights flickered, and briefly went out in the building. Within moments, visibility through the room’s large picture windows plummeted to a grey, hurricane-like blur of blowing rain and tree branches.
Almost immediately, Fire Chief Bob Finn’s pager alarm sounded. He left the room to listen to dispatchers; Assistant Police Chief Tom Zenner soon followed. The meeting continued, but one by one, various City Council members and department heads left the room momentarily, either to contact support staff or call loved ones at home.
While no one knew it at the time, the 50-plus mph winds knocked a tree on to the roof of the Lincoln Center (it was one of two that fell on the building), causing immediate leaks from the ceiling inside.
Within minutes Finn left; downed power lines had caused a house fire nearby, activating all Metro Fire units. Zenner, who had been scheduled to discuss police dept. space needs that night, also had no choice but to leave and help manage emergency resources in the near-monsoon.
Even though the storm itself lasted less than an hour, it was clearly an all-hands-on-deck situation. Fire engines, squad cars and ambulances were simultaneously being dispatched in opposite directions in the midst of dangerous winds and flying debris. It was immediately clear local emergency crews would be, at first, handling only the most urgent of situations. It was also clear the impact of this storm wouldn’t truly be known for days, possibly weeks. Many residents, it seemed, would have to manage smaller emergencies on their own.
And they did — in fine fashion.
Well, for the most part.
Several streets across the community were impassable, blocked by downed power lines, large trees or water. That didn’t stop some motorists (with no ostensible understanding of the laws of nature or internal combustion engines) from attempting to drive through high water.
One man became stranded in more than four feet of water after ignoring a blockade of orange cones at the Church St. underpass, working his way into history by becoming one of the few — if not the only — person in Portage Co. history to have been rescued in the middle of the street by a fire dept. rescue boat.
Other motorists were stuck on Minnesota Ave., Portage, Bukolt, Division and other streets, and it was ordinary residents who emerged from their homes to assess any injuries, then help push vehicles to dry land.
In other parts of the area, citizens lined the streets to direct traffic away from downed power lines — which were hard to spot in the tangle of trash and tree branches. In the days that followed, offers of assistance flooded social media sites — freezer space, electricity and hot showers were offered for anyone who had lost power during the storm.
In a world where social media is largely used to share amusing pictures of cats and lobbing insults towards one politician or another, it was nice to see Facebook being used for such a productive cause. It was a privilege for this reporter to witness.
In the days that followed, volunteers also emerged to help with debris and trash removal.
No deaths or serious injuries were sustained as a result of the storm or its immediate aftermath; it’s the best possible example of our community’s residents and emergency crews.
But make no mistake, those men and women of emergency services, streets departments and law enforcement sought no fanfare for their work on this night. As Chief Deputy Dan Kontos put it, the night of June 12 saw “Nothing extraordinary. Just the routine heroics,” when it came to emergency crews’ responses.
This reporter disagrees. The June 12 storm was truly a “storm of the century”, with officials from multiple departments and municipalities saying it was beyond what would be expected for a hundred-year storm.
But if last week’s public response was any indication, local residents can depend on each other no matter what natural disaster comes their way. And knowing what kind of neighbors we have here makes it, somehow, a little easier to face the next storm.