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Wisconsin, Oklahoma communities rally to recover from devastating tornadoes

More than a week after two deadly tornadoes leveled homes and forever altered lives in Elk City, Oklahoma, and Chetek, Wisconsin, the communities are slowly but surely working to get back to normal.

The tornadoes struck as part of a widespread severe weather outbreak on Tuesday, May 16, which saw 33 tornado reports scattered from Wisconsin to Texas.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin both spent time surveying the damage and meeting with victims in the impacted communities in the following days.

In Chetek, located in northwest Wisconsin about two hours from Minneapolis, one person was killed and 25 were injured after the powerful EF3 tornado ravaged a mobile home park and unleashed winds up to 140 mph. Damage has been estimated at $10 million in Barron County.

At least 100 homes and numerous businesses were damaged in the western Oklahoma town of Elk City. Aerial footage captured the widespread destruction that the EF2 tornado wrought on the town and surrounding areas. One person was killed and more than 80 people suffered injuries from May 16-20, officials said.

Mobile home park destroyed in Barron County, WI

A mobile home park in Barron County, Wisconsin, is mostly destroyed after a tornado hit the area on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. (Facebook Photo/Barron County Sheriff's Department)

The American Red Cross, Salvation Army and other aid groups have volunteers stationed in both communities to assist with emergency response.

Brittney Rochelle, regional communications and marketing manager for the Oklahoma and Arkansas Red Cross, said Red Cross volunteers will remain in an area as long as they’re needed.

“The biggest need going forward is just getting these people help,” Rochelle said. “Their houses have been completely destroyed and so we are just in the area doing what we can to help them get back on their feet.”

Barbara Martin, a Red Cross volunteer who specializes in disaster recovery, helped distribute food and other supplies from an emergency response vehicle from Friday through Sunday in the Elk City area.

Martin had the chance to interact with several storm victims and she got the sense that the community had come together and described the mood among residents as “hopeful.”

“They knew it was a tough time, but they knew they were gonna recover also,” she said.

The Red Cross has distributed more than 1,800 meals, 1,100 snacks and over 200 bulk items around Elk City, and other Oklahoma counties hit hard by severe weather over the course of the last week.

After the devastating May 20, 2013, tornado, which leveled her hometown of Moore, Oklahoma, Martin has been a volunteer with the Red Cross ever since.

As a veteran of many storm cleanups, Martin said she was impressed with how quickly the Elk City community came together to donate items and clear debris.

"It was just the speediness and the sense of community I think that really impressed me," she said.

Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald told AccuWeather that the recovery will take “months,” and 30-50 homes were “totally destroyed.”

Thousands of downed trees remained strewn across the region and the storms also inflicted structural damage on several farms, Fitzgerald said. As many people continue to discover property damage, submit requests for assistance as they begin to prepare their cabins for Memorial Day weekend and beyond, he added.

In addition to gathering physical supplies and monetary donations, a trauma response team from the Barron County Health and Human Services Department is meeting with those who are struggling to cope with the loss of their homes.

In the wake of the storms, law enforcement officials have spoken about the camaraderie and selflessness on display in their communities.

“What amazes us as we have patrolled the area is the graciousness, determination and generosity of spirit we have encountered - both from those affected by the storm and those who are out helping,” the Beckham County, Oklahoma, Sheriff’s Office said on its Facebook page.

“It’s been neighbors helping neighbors, the response has been unbelievable,” Fitzgerald said. “They’re bringing hope to a lot of families and that’s what people want.”