Following the collapse of a southwest side apartment building April 8, Madison Fire Department officials called the American Red Cross out of habit.
“They’re our right-hand organization,” MFD spokewoman Cynthia Schuster said.
The MFD almost always calls the Red Cross when responding to a fire that displaces people. The organization can provide limited financial assistance to help people with necessities, including a hotel stay and replacement clothes, while they are out of their home.
"At the end of the day, with our partners, we will figure out a way so that people have a place to go," said Justin Kern, spokesman for American Red Cross of Wisconsin.
Kern pointed out that the Red Cross was available with food for displaced tenants on the night of the incident and was able to find emergency shelter, but it was not needed.
However, the city quickly remembered the limits of the organization. The Red Cross was not able to offer first-line assistance to the estimated 35 displaced tenants of 1202 McKenna Blvd. because the building collapse was a maintenance issue under the purview of the management company, not the result of a fire or natural disaster.
Complicating the situation, Schuster said many tenants did not have renter’s insurance and are responsible for replacing damaged possessions.
“It was a very helpless feeling,” Schuster said.
The apartment building collapsed after a contractor working on a remodeling project on a lower floor removed a load-bearing wall, which caused the upper floors to collapse. No one was injured, but city inspectors determined the building was unsafe for tenants to return.
“It really is the responsibility of the property owner to figure it out, which was little comfort to me,” Schuster said about the moment she learned the situation did not qualify for Red Cross aid. “We’re the ones directly assisting these occupants.”
Bob Romines, a spokesman for RMK Management, said property managers provided hotel rooms for tenants who could not find another place to stay from the night of the collapse through April 15. By April 16, all but two of the displaced residents returned to their apartments.
The management company also provided temporary food service through the hotels and gift cards to replace perishable food left in their refrigerators when utilities were down, Romines said.
The community stepped up to supply other needs.
Ald. Barbara Harrington-McKinney, District 1, helped arrange a clothing drive where community members could donate gently used clothing, and the Elver Park Neighborhood Center hosted a community dinner April 18 to welcome the tenants back to the neighborhood.
“Those are the things I’m really pleased as an alder to see how the community can really come together, not around negative issues but about how they can reach out and say, ‘How can we help?’” McKinney said.