National Guard troops came off the interstate and returned to the Portage Armory on Friday afternoon, where Gov. Scott Walker dropped by to offer his thanks to soldiers, first responders and volunteers.
“There were a couple of sandbag missions that we were taking care of today,” said Task Force 173 Officer In Charge Seth Kaste. “It was really a sandbag mission to prevent the water from disrupting the line of communication to keep traffic flowing.”
The project involved rotating schedules, and Kaste estimated there were about 60 troops in each section.
In the days before Labor Day weekend, the Department of Transportation requested assistance, which was routed through the State Emergency Operation Center, and approved by the adjutant general. Guard troops were sent to collect and deliver sandbags along Interstate 90/94 and Interstate 39 near Highway 33. The task force also worked on a section of I-39 further north, which was then taken over by the Columbia County Highway Department.
Walker thanked those at the armory, including members of local emergency agencies, recovery groups such as the Salvation Army and Red Cross, and a contingent of Boy Scouts. The Baraboo and Wisconsin rivers are expected to crest over the weekend, segueing to the next phase of recovery.
“Long term, we look at emergency management and the possibility of a federal declaration,” Walker said. “And what we’re going to look at is mainly how do we provide for recovery, but then if we get federal money, to set a portion aside for mitigation throughout the watershed, so it doesn’t stop at the county line or at the community.”
Walker and his wife have been visiting disaster sites in south central Wisconsin, where tornadoes and flooding have caused massive damage.
“Today, it was a perfect time, since they had just come off of the interstate, to thank members of the guard and other volunteers,” Walker said. “You don’t want to take people who are unfamiliar with the area and put them on multiple detours where they might be tempted to go through standing water, which is a horrible, horrible thing.”
Although Walker’s visit came at the end of the National Guard’s mission, the Baraboo and Wisconsin rivers have continued to rise. The Wisconsin River is expected to crest on Sunday at 17.1 feet, reaching the minor flood stage. The Baraboo River is expected to crest early Saturday at 24.9 feet, well into the major flood stage and about 2.5 feet away from its record high.
“We’re standing down the operations now for those soldiers and airmen that were supporting today, but many of us are just going to be on a drill weekend, right there ready at the armories, ready to support the citizens of Wisconsin however we can,” Kaste said.
Likewise, Walker said that in the event conditions take a turn, although the current mission has ended, they will be at the ready.
“We think that is a critical time because you still have water draining through the watersheds and I think once we get through Sunday and into Monday,” Walker said. “Then we can look at damage assessments that get us ready for a federal declaration.”
While Walker was greeting members of the National Guard and Air Guard, shaking hands with Boy Scout families, his competitor for the upcoming election was also in Portage. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers and running mate Mandela Barnes, a former state representative, were making a campaign stop in Portage at the Columbia County Democratic headquarters in downtown Portage.
“I didn’t know he was here,” Walker said. “I don’t follow his schedule. For us it’s just official, not campaigning, and assessing where the damage is.”