MILWAUKEE, Wis. — A string of rare January tornadoes spawned by a freakish winter weather system tore through southeastern Wisconsin on Monday, destroying about 30 homes in Kenosha County, uprooting trees and knocking out power to thousands.
More than a dozen people were injured during the tornadoes, which were accompanied by flood warnings, heavy rains and 60-degree-plus temperatures that made large puddles out of what had been piles of snow last week.
There were severe thunderstorm warnings before the tornadoes came into play.
“This is crazy — in the past 14 years, this office has never had a reason to issue a severe thunderstorm warning in the month of January,” read a statement posted on the Web site of the National Weather Service, which issued warnings for Rock, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha counties Monday morning.
“Winter storm warnings and blizzard warnings — yes, but not severe thunderstorm warnings,” the statement from the Sullivan office said.
It got worse — tornado warnings followed.
In all, five reports of tornadoes came in to the National Weather Service — one in Walworth County, south of Pell Lake, and four in Kenosha County.
The twisters appear to have struck the hardest in the Town of Wheatland in Kenosha County, where authorities reported 25 to 30 homes destroyed, about 50 to 100 people left homeless and about 100 homes damaged.
Wheatland Fire Chief Alan Kaddatz said seven people were injured, some of them — including a Kenosha County sheriff’s deputy — when they drove off the road when the tornado arrived.
Search dogs looking for injured or trapped survivors went through subdivisions, Kaddatz said. People with injuries, all of which were minor, were taken to Burlington Memorial Hospital.
A number of gas lines in the area were reported ruptured, Kaddatz said.
Aurora Medical Group facilities treated 13 people for tornado-related injuries according to The Associated Press.
People who were displaced by the damage but were not hurt were taken to St. John Church on Geneva Road.
Other hot spots
Two tornadoes on the ground were reported about three miles northwest of the Kenosha airport, and another tornado was spotted about three miles northeast of New Munster.
About four miles northwest of Sturtevant in Racine County, debris was reported falling from the sky.
Meanwhile, Kenosha County sheriff’s Sgt. Gil Benn said there were numerous reports of damage to businesses, homes and other structures in the Town of Somers and the north side of the city of Kenosha, just northwest of Carthage College.
Benn said Tacos El Rey, 2000 Birch Road, was heavily damaged, probably by a tornado, and numerous homes in the Birch Road area were structurally damaged.
He said a portion of a roof and upper floor came off a residence near 22nd Ave. and 15th St., and a roof collapse was reported at an apartment building near 17th Court and 15th St.
Many people reported seeing the funnel clouds.
“You could see it working in the clouds,” said Scott Huth, principal of Wheatland Center School, where a temporary shelter was set up for residents who live nearby.
As the tornado drew closer to the Koch’s Rolling Meadows subdivision, residents said, the sound grew louder and louder.
“It roared,” Connie Baer said. “The wind was just unbelievable.”
Baer said she fled down the basement steps with her four children, a 6-year-old boy, two 10-year-old boy twins and a 17-year-old girl.
After the storm passed, she went outside and saw a playhouse in her backyard in pieces and a wooded area of an acre or more between her home and a neighbor’s flattened.
A neighbor, Miranda Fugett, 13, said her house shook as she ran into the basement with her younger sister and she could hear a booming sound.
When she walked outside, she said, she saw that one home nearby was destroyed, a second home had been picked up off its foundation and was damaged.
She said people, some with looks of disbelief, began coming out of their houses.
Twin Lakes rescue spokesman Darrel Stoen said several residents were injured but not seriously. Stoen was part of an ambulance crew at an unrelated traffic accident, near Highway O and Highway 50, when he saw a tornado heading straight for them about 4 p.m.
“I thought it was going to roll our ambulance over,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything. Everything was blowing past me.”
Helping friends, family
Family and friends worked into the night. They put up boards and made repairs at Russ and Mary Ann Price’s home in the 6000 block of 368th Ave.
Their daughter, Debbie Greskiw, 56, who lives in Camp Lake, said her parents escaped unhurt when a tree blew through the side of their house and high winds destroyed a shed in their backyard. She said the damage in their two-story house was devastating.
“It’s just all wet, tipped over and broken,” Greskiw said.
Scott Clements and his two children — Douglas, 8, and Allison, 11 — rode out the storm under a mattress in their basement after Clements saw the twister heading straight into their neighborhood.
“It just got grayer and grayer. It was just spinning like crazy,” he said of the tornado.
At Wheatland Center School, on the edge of the neighborhood, dozens of residents found shelter, food and overnight accommodations in the school’s gymnasium. Officials announced the school would be closed today so the facilities would be available to residents for shelter.
Red Cross volunteer Earl Burdick said people were in surprisingly high spirits.
“Their homes might be gone,” he said, “but they’re all hugging, and they’re glad to see each other.”
Firefighters also were fighting a ruptured gas line in the area. People in the school were depending on generators for electricity.
Another tornado was reported about two miles southeast of Pell Lake in Walworth County. The roof of a barn was blown off at county Highway Q near Twin Lakes Road.
Flash flooding was reported in Milwaukee and Greendale, and a quarter-inch of hail was reported in Hales Corners.
The last time severe summerlike weather struck southern Wisconsin in winter was in February 1999, when storms produced golf-ball size hail and wind gusts of up to 70 mph. The last time a tornado touched down in Wisconsin was in January 1967; on Jan. 24, a tornado plowed a 25-mile path through Green and Rock Counties, the National Weather Service said.
For the past several days, unseasonably warm temperatures and rainfall have melted almost all the 15 to 33 inches of snow that fell in December, pushing streams and rivers in southern Wisconsin near or above flood stage.
Flood warnings remained in effect Monday night for the Fox River near New Munster, where moderate flooding was expected. The river is forecast to crest at 13.2 feet about noon Thursday, the weather service said.
The storms uprooted trees and downed power lines, knocking out power to about 5,300 We Energies customers in Kenosha County, said utility spokeswoman Irissol Arce. Another 100 power failures were reported throughout southeastern Wisconsin, Arce said.
On Monday, Milwaukee’s temperature reached 63 degrees, smashing the old record of 47 degrees set Jan. 7, 2003.
Jesse Garza wrote this story in Milwaukee, with reports from Lee Bergquist and Scott Williams in Kenosha County and John Dobberstein in Milwaukee, all of the Journal Sentinel staff.
Jan. 24, 1967The last time a tornado touched down in Wisconsin in January.