WisBusiness: Ten Months Later, Viola Celebrates Tornado Recovery

By Gregg Hoffmann

For WisBusiness.com

VIOLA – Government officials from the local, county, state and federal levels joined representatives of aid agencies, private sector companies and the citizens of this small Kickapoo Valley community in a “celebration of recovery” over the weekend.

A community picnic was held Saturday in a park along the Kickapoo River in the village to show appreciation for the people who helped in the recovery from an Aug. 18, 2005, tornado that caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage in the village.

The community was denied FEMA funds for the recovery, but a coalition of various organizations helped raise money and provide volunteers.

“The people who deserve the most credit for this recovery are you, the people of Viola,” said Senate Majority Leader Dale Schultz, whose district includes Viola. “The politicians worked together and kept their mouths shut for once.”

John Medinger, representing Sen. Herb Kohl, said, “Some times government does get it right. With the exception of FEMA, various units of government set aside partisanship and got it done.”

Assembly 96th District Rep. Lee Nerison said that government leaders from local, county and state levels filled in the gaps left by the FEMA denial of recovery funds.

“FEMA said we cleaned things up too fast,” Nerison said. “We just wanted to get things cleaned up and get back to living. With what was going on in the Gulf of Mexico (Katrina disaster), we knew we weren’t likely to see the money from that source.”

Nerison co-sponsored a bill that set aside state funds for the infrastructure repair in communities hit by disasters like the tornado in Viola.

“You can’t tax the people because they’re already trying to get their lives back together,” Nerison said. “So, this bill provides some state funds for municipalities to rebuild infrastructure. And, we made sure we back-dated it to include Viola.”

Viola received about $600,000 in state funds through the Department of Commerce and $800,000 through the Community Development Block Grant – Emergency Assistance Program.

“I’m pleased to participate in what essentially is the rebirth of a community,” said David Storey, deputy secretary of the Department of Commerce, who represented Gov. Jim Doyle. “I can’t think of a better use for our department’s funds than for something like this.”

The Neighborhood Housing Services of Richland County partnered with Richland County, the village of Viola, the state and others partners in obtaining the Community Develop Block Grant that provided emergency grants to eligible home owners who had been affected by the tornado. The recovery work continues this year with NHS providing other rehab funds to improve homes for many elderly, fixed low-income home owners.

At Saturday’s event, John Santner of the NeighborWorks America North Central District presented Terry Testolin, NHS executive director of Richland County, with a check for $204,500 to help in the recovery.

Darin Gudgeon, the Richland County emergency government manager, put a very human face on the recovery. “Everybody is coming out. Everybody is helping, and we’re just getting the job done,” he said. “When I first came to Viola after the storm hit, my grandma, who was born here, asked, ‘Is the house where I was born still standing?’ It is.

“Two counties (Richland and Vernon) worked together to help individuals in this community. The state stepped in. We received volunteer help from all over the state of Wisconsin. Everybody was concerned about everybody else.”

Viola used around 11,000 volunteer hours as part of its matching funds to qualify for the state and federal funds. Carol Oliver coordinated that effort locally.

In addition to the formal program, a driving tour to show how individual homeowners have recovered from the tornado was sponsored by the NHS of Richland County and the Vernon-Richland Recovery Project.