MERRILL — The constant onslaught of phone calls, multiple daily briefings and piles of paperwork cannot erase the startlingly clear memories.
For Brian Sladek, it came late Monday morning as he stood at the corner of Airport Road and Hillside Drive in the town of Merrill. Sladek stared at the intersecting road signs, marking a street corner he had driven through dozens of times.
But with fallen pine trees and houses torn apart by wind and flying debris, nothing looked familiar. Sladek had to convince himself that he was standing in the same community where he grew up.
For Jeff Jaeger, it came earlier that morning as he turned onto Hillside Drive off Pier Street and came to a halt. Fallen trees and power lines blocked all access to the street.
Same story approaching from the west, using Highway 107. Residents of the neighborhood ran toward Jaeger’s squad car, reporting the unmistakable hissing sound and smell of a natural gas leak.
It was just hours after a tornado ripped a 22-mile swath through central Wisconsin, and these two lifelong Lincoln County residents now fully comprehended the scope of the damage in very personal ways.
Now both are leading the team charged with helping the communities stricken by Sunday’s tornado to recover and rebuild. Jaeger, Lincoln County’s sheriff, and Sladek, the county’s emergency management director, are the go-to sources for direction and information after the storm.
Storms and the damage they leave in their wake don’t pay attention to county or municipal boundaries. Neither has the response and recovery effort in Lincoln County this week.
Led by Jaeger, officials with the sheriff’s department, emergency management, the city and town of Merrill and municipal and county transit hold joint briefings twice a day — down from three times a day earlier in the week.
Jaeger’s leadership stemmed from the natural initial response required by the storm. People call 911 when they’re in trouble, and the calls piled into Lincoln County’s dispatch center.
The former SWAT officer responded as hours and years of training had prepared him: establish a command post, determine the resources and personnel needed and move them into place.
Off-duty personnel showed up at the sheriff’s office driving pickup trucks with empty beds and toting chainsaws, ready to help clear streets. When machinery failed, police officers and firefighters climbed under and over fallen trees to reach houses and check on residents.
Sladek, stationed at the county’s Safety Building in downtown Merrill, communicated with the sheriff’s dispatch office, volunteer organizations, local hospitals and other emergency service agencies.
He didn’t even consider going to his own home to rest until a Red Cross shelter was set up at a local hotel.
Four surrounding counties sent their own emergency management directors to assist. And troopers with the Wisconsin State Patrol, along with officers from Marathon and other surrounding counties, poured into the area for support.
On the ground, volunteers for The Salvation Army and the Red Cross handed out sandwiches, staffed warming centers and walked door-to-door asking what people coping with life-changing destruction needed.
“These situations are like a living thing, always changing,” Sladek said. “Everybody does what they do best.”
After initial emergency calls subsided Sunday, the sheriff’s department shifted into security mode. A perimeter around the areas hardest hit, including town of Merrill homes close to the airport, was established early Monday.
Today, residents and neighbors still need white slips of paper — passes issued by the mobile command center — to enter the area. The measure is intended to cut down on sight-seers and other traffic that could clog the recently cleared roads. Jaeger said he expects that policy to remain in place until Sunday — at the request of town officials and residents.
Bill Burgener, chairman of the town of Merrill, said Jaeger, Sladek and the other county officials assisting the town’s residents have been “invaluable.”
All the disparate public officials and different government agencies working together have resulted in a few “testy” meetings, Burgener said. But overall, he wouldn’t change a thing about the response effort.
“I’m a 40-year resident, and I’ve never seen a storm like this before,” he said. “It was just bad.”
Public works employees from the county and city have begun picking up trees and other debris left on the side of the road. Private companies hired by residents also have begun to assist clearing away the massive fallen trees.
Jaeger and Sladek’s own homes weren’t damaged by the storm, but their own good luck hasn’t diminished either’s feelings of loss as they surveyed the destruction this week.
“It kind of leaves you feeling guilty, in a way,” Jaeger said. “Two miles away, two very good friends of mine were hit. One had his home destroyed.”
Sladek remembers gazing at a friend’s house on the corner of Airport Road and Hillside Drive on Monday morning. He used one-word sentences to describe his first tour through the damage.
“Tough. Unbelievable. Bad,” Sladek said, pausing for a minute to compose himself. “I thought, ‘I know the people that live here.’ It really impacts you.”