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2017 disasters challenge Red Cross volunteers


Red Cross volunteer Derek van Veldhuisen often wished he could do more to help desperate families in the remote mountains of Puerto Rico.

At one home, an elderly woman lay in bed while a cognitively disabled girl curled up on a cot in their tiny hurricane-battered house.

Van Veldhuisen and two other Red Cross workers in December delivered a badly needed generator to power a medical device.

The woman was grateful.

But the family faced huge problems the team could not fix.

“We drove away feeling guilty because we couldn’t give them more,” van Veldhuisen said. “We could not solve their overall problems of living without a roof, money or medical facilities.”

Van Veldhuisen volunteered for five weeks in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last year.

“We came face to face with people who were poor and sick,” he said. “Many people told us with tears in their eyes that we were the first to help them.”

Without the help of GPS, Van Veldhuisen drove 2,000 miles delivering generators in remote areas to people who needed them for medical reasons.

He steered the delivery van over narrow mountain roads, often littered with fallen power lines and debris from mudslides.

He crossed rivers on battered bridges that had all but disappeared in the devastating storm.

“I had to be focused all the time,” van Veldhuisen said.

At the end of the day, the Janesville man often felt exhausted.

“Mentally, I saw things that are unforgettable,” van Veldhuisen said.

The retired Janesville teacher, like so many other Red Cross volunteers, was stretched to the limit in 2017 when back-to-back disasters sent him on multiple deployments.

Puerto Rico was van Veldhuisen’s third out-of-state deployment in four months.

For two weeks in September, he delivered meals, water and personal hygiene kits to residents of Orlando, Florida, who were recovering from Hurricane Irma.

In October, he went to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where people were suffering after hurricanes Irma and Maria. For three weeks, he drove throughout the island distributing meals, water and supplies. He labored in heat and humidity and drove on rough, debris-littered roads.

In late November, he deployed to Puerto Rico, where the power went out Sept. 20.

He returned home before Christmas.

In spite of the hardship, van Veldhuisen would not hesitate to return.

“People are still waiting in the mountains for help,” he said. “I would go again in a heartbeat.”

Concern for volunteers

Tom Mooney, chief operating officer of the American Red Cross in Wisconsin, said 2017 was unprecedented in the number of large disasters, many of them occurring back to back.

In summer, the Red Cross responded to widespread flooding in Wisconsin. In August, Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas and caused $125 billion in damage to infrastructure. More than 400 Red Cross volunteers from Wisconsin responded.

Then, Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Florida. Soon after, Maria blasted the islands and Florida again.

In addition, California and Canadian wildfires caused record-setting devastation and suffering.

“The disasters just kept coming,” Mooney said. “With so many happening one after another, we started to see and hear about issues with volunteers that were not coping well, especially if they were on their second or third long deployments.”

Normal procedure is for mental health professionals to contact volunteers and staff after they come home.

“It is a way to determine how they are doing both mentally and physically once they return,” Mooney said. “This year, we even went a step further…we told volunteers they had to stay at home and rest for at least a minimum of one week and even two, in some cases.”

Mental health professionals needed to clear them before they were allowed to leave on another deployment, he explained.

“If we know a situation is going to be especially trying, we send someone who is a veteran or someone with a certain skill level and who is aware of what they are going to see,” Mooney said. “When we deployed people to Puerto Rico, we asked them if they are ready to live in tents with limited water and communications.”

Ready to give back

When Gail Slepekis of Milton retired in 2012, she decided to give back by volunteering for the American Red Cross.

At the end of August, she deployed to Giddings, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey pillaged the state.

“It is hard because people have lost everything,” Slepekis said. “You feel sorry for them. But you also feel good because you are there to help.”

She said volunteers are paired with other volunteers.

“We help each other,” Slepekis explained. “We share things with each other.”

She described Giddings as a small town like Milton.

“A lot of community people were there to help,” Slepekis said. “It was nice to see all the compassion the community had for its people.”

Both Slepekis and van Veldhuisen also help local disaster victims, including people who have lost their homes to fires.

“We are indeed so very fortunate to have volunteers like Derek and Gail,” Mooney said. “They are both so very special as are all of our volunteers, whether they are able and willing to deploy nationally or they stay home right here and help with local disasters 24/7.”

Wisconsin has 433 Red Cross volunteers, and the Southwest Chapter of the Red Cross, which includes Rock County, has 108 volunteers.

Mooney called volunteers “absolute saints.”

“I have so much respect for them,” he said. “All they want to do is help their neighbors and provide hope. It is really humbling.”

Primary will cut two candidates from big Milton School Board field

Brian Kvapil


Milton School District residents will head to the polls Tuesday, Feb. 20, to face a crowded slate of school board candidates.

Eight people are running for three open spots on the Milton School Board, and the primary will trim two candidates off the ballot ahead of the April 3 general election.

Incumbents Shelly Crull-Hanke, a board member since 2015, and Brian Kvapil, elected last year, are seeking re-election.

Newcomers Tony Astin, Joe Martin, Diamond McKenna, Brent Miller, Harvey Smith and Gabriel Szerlong are also running.

Longtime board member and current board President Bob Cullen is not seeking a seventh term.

Q: Why are you running for Milton School Board?

Astin: “With the last couple referendum votes that went on and the public outcry related to it, I felt there was a need for someone to run who people could approach with ideas in an honest position there,” he said.

Crull-Hanke: “I decided to run again because we haven’t finished everything I wanted to start,” she said.

She also cited her longtime involvement with the district’s strategic planning committee and her teaching background as a positive influence on facilities and academics.

Kvapil: He wants kids to have the best education possible and wants to continue doing more for the district, he said.

Martin: He wants to guide the schools and “continue the tradition of what I think is excellent performance” within the district, he said.

McKenna: “While hot topics are important, it’s taken over why people are running,” she said. “I think topics that don’t get talked about and aren’t as apparent are still just as important. I want to make sure people are running for the right reasons.”

Miller: Right now, the district and school board are polarized, and everyone is for or against certain issues, he said. He wants to restore an open line of communication because the school board “isn’t meshing right now.”

Smith: He has been a youth counselor for much of his adult life and has continued that through his involvement in Boy Scouts. Now that he’s retired, he feels he understands the pulse of the community, he said.

Szerlong: People suggested he run because he is a recent graduate of Milton High School, works for the state Assembly and majored in political science and public administration at UW-Whitewater. His background makes him a strong candidate, he said.

Q: What’s the next step in the district’s search for a facilities solution?

Astin: “(We need) to make sure we hear ideas from people who disagreed with prior referendums and find what ideas they would support and craft something that’s a compromise for everybody,” he said.

He stressed facilities are not the district’s main issue.

Crull-Hanke: She believes the district still needs a new high school because space needs aren’t going away. Interest rates are going up, and another referendum could be on the horizon, she said.

Kvapil: He wants a list of needs compiled by consultants and then used for a “scientific prioritization” method to figure out which areas the district most needs to address.

Martin: Facilities aren’t the only issue, and the district should be proud of its other accomplishments. But the school board needs to keep exploring its options, he said.

“I think there’s a solution out there,” he said. “We just have to keep working to identify it.”

McKenna: District buildings are overcrowded and have safety issues, but the board should understand that voters have rejected two proposals for a new facility, she said.

“The first thing we need to do is find out why is this failing? Why doesn’t the community support it?” she said. “And how can we get everyone back on the same page?”

Miller: Like others, Miller said Milton’s schools are overcrowded. He called for a task force that would come up with tangible ideas by a certain date.

Smith: The board needs to incorporate more public feedback and adhere to the results of a previous community facilities survey, he said.

“The first referendum was defeated, and that should’ve been a starting point to go back to the drawing board,” he said. “But it seemed they were determined to push forward the one idea they were attached to, and that solution failed as well.”

Szerlong: He advocated for further community input and input from different contractors to see what possibilities the district could consider. The school board needs to do everything it can to weigh all options, he said.

Q: Besides facilities, what other issues face the Milton School District. How would you address those?

Astin: Because he’s an outsider to the board, he would rely on district employees to learn about pressing issues and consult them on how to solve those problems. Overcrowding is a problem, but it shows parents want to send their kids to Milton, he said.

Crull-Hanke: Facilities are the district’s primary issue. Milton needs to continue to push its technological curriculum to provide students with a 21st century education


Kvapil: He wants the district to pursue the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, an annual federal award recognizing excellence in various sectors. It would give Milton some national prestige, he said.

Martin: Related to facilities, the district needs to be creative with temporary space options. Even with a successful referendum, it would take several years before a new building could be completed, he said.

McKenna: She became concerned with school safety during a recent tour of the high school. The district has also done a good job of creating a modern school environment and should continue focusing on that, she said.

Miller: Milton should explore additional educational opportunities with the technology and construction industries, he said.

Smith: Milton provides a strong education, but it could do more to prevent its graduates from taking remedial courses in college. He also wants to encourage more girls to take STEM classes, he said.

Szerlong: He wants to promote more vocational opportunities for students instead of pushing them to four-year universities. He also wants to restore faith in the district, both in terms of public trust and faith in God.

Trump to unveil $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan


President Donald Trump will unveil today his long-awaited infrastructure plan, a $1.5 trillion proposal that fulfills a number of campaign goals but relies heavily on state and local governments to produce much of the funding.

The administration’s plan is centered on using $200 billion in federal money to leverage local and state tax dollars to fix America’s infrastructure, such as roads, highways, ports and airports.

“Every federal dollar should be leveraged by partnering with state and local governments and—where appropriate—tapping into private sector investment to permanently fix the infrastructure deficit,” Trump said at last month’s State of the Union address.

Trump has repeatedly blamed the “crumbling” state of the nation’s roads and highways for preventing the American economy from reaching its full potential. Many in Washington believe that Trump should have begun his term a year ago with an infrastructure push, one that could have garnered bipartisan support or, at minimum, placed Democrats in a bind for opposing a popular political measure.

But the administration chose to begin with health care and relations with Democrats have only grown more strained during a turbulent, contentious year. The White House, now grappling with the fallout from the departure of a senior aide after spousal abuse allegations, might not have an easy time navigating a massive infrastructure plan through a polarized Congress. It just grappled with two federal government shutdowns and will soon turns its attention to immigration.

Administration officials previewing the plan said it would feature two key components: an injection of funding for new investments and help speed up repairs of crumbling roads and airports, as well as a streamlined permitting process that would truncate the wait time to get projects underway. Officials said the $200 billion in federal support would come from cuts to existing programs.

Half the money would go to grants for transportation, water, flood control, cleanup at some of the country’s most polluted sites and other projects.

States, local governments and other project sponsors could use the grants—which administration officials view as incentives—for no more than 20 percent of the cost. Transit agencies generally count on the federal government for half the cost of major construction projects, and federal dollars can make up as much as 80 percent of some highway projects.

About $50 billion would go toward rural projects—transportation, broadband, water, waste, power, flood management and ports. That is intended to address criticism from some Republican senators that the administration’s initial emphasis on public-private partnerships would do little to help rural, GOP-leaning states.

Early reaction to the proposal was divided.

Jay Timmons, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, saluted Trump “for providing the leadership we have desperately needed to reclaim our rightful place as global leader on true 21st-century infrastructure.”

“When ports are clogged, trucks are delayed, power is down, water is shut off, or the internet has a lapse, modern manufacturers’ ability to compete is threatened and jobs are put at risk,” said Timmons. “There is no excuse for inaction, and manufacturers are committed to ensuring that America seizes this opportunity.”

But a number of Democrats and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have pushed the administration to commit far more federal dollars, funded by tax increases, or by closing tax loopholes. And environmental groups expressed worry about its impact.

“President Trump’s infrastructure proposal is a disaster,” said Shelley Poticha, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It fails to offer the investment needed to bring our country into the 21st century. Even worse, his plan includes an unacceptable corporate giveaway by truncating environmental reviews.”


local • 3A, 6A

Alcohol investigated in crash

The Wisconsin State Patrol is investigating if alcohol played a role in a January crash on Interstate 43 that killed three Beloit men. Delandis J. McKinney, Cecilio Rodriguez Jr. and Hesham M. Abdelrahim, all 26—were killed in the crash. State Patrol interviews and video footage show evidence that Kiyoko Monet Becker, who was injured along with two other women, was intoxicated and was driving the SUV before the crash, according to the reports.

City snow removal delayed

Janesville has delayed removing snow from the downtown area until tonight, according to a news release. The city originally had scheduled downtown snow removal for Sunday night. The work was postponed because of a larger-than-anticipated snowfall Saturday and Sunday, according to the release.

state • 2A

Court primary may hold clues

The latest battle over the ideological balance of the Wisconsin Supreme Court plays out in the Feb. 20 primary, where one of three candidates will be eliminated ahead of a spring election. The primary is the first statewide race this year, and while officially nonpartisan, it could be a bellwether for how Republicans and Democrats stand heading into the fall. Turnout is expected to be low, likely less than 10 percent.

nation/world • 6B-7B

Airline crash kills 71 people

A Russian airliner that had just taken off from the country’s second-busiest airport crashed Sunday, killing all 71 people aboard and scattering jagged chunks of wreckage across a snowy field outside Moscow.

Fate of ‘Dreamers’ debated

The Senate begins a rare, open-ended debate on immigration and the fate of the “Dreamer” immigrants today, and Republican senators say they’ll introduce President Donald Trump’s plan. Though his proposal has no chance of passage, Trump may be the most influential voice in the conversation.