Severe storms and tornadoes struck several areas of southern Wisconsin with blunt-force effect late Monday and early Tuesday, causing millions of dollars in damage but few reported injuries.
Platteville, Madison and Verona were the hardest-hit populated areas, but five distinct tornadoes made numerous touchdowns between Blanchardville, New Glarus and Verona, the National Weather Service said.
“The nature of this storm system was that the tornado spinoffs just hopped along, all with the same system,” said Weather Service meteorologist Marcia Kronce.
Much of Platteville was covered in debris and remained without power late Tuesday afternoon after the city was struck by two tornadoes late Monday. Five people were reported injured, including a woman with a severe neck injury. One tornado tore through the UW-Platteville campus and destroyed 12 homes and severely damaged 20 others.
In Verona, the tornado struck the north side of town around 12:10 a.m., leaving a trail of destruction that caused major damage to at least 30 homes, 19 of which were rendered uninhabitable. The biggest hit was taken by Country View Elementary School, which sustained an estimated $3 million to $4 million in damage.
The damage in Madison was widespread but less severe, except in a section of the city’s Southwest Side where an EF2 tornado with winds estimated at 120 mph touched down and tracked at ground level for about 600 feet, according to Weather Service hydrologist Brian Hahn.
The tornadoes knocked out power in pockets across the region, with Alliant Energy reporting nearly 7,000 customers without power in southwestern Wisconsin, a number that had been cut to about 3,200 by 10 p.m. Power was cut to nearly 5,000 Madison Gas & Electric customers, but it was restored to nearly all of them by late Tuesday.
A followup punch is expected, Kronce said. There was a possibility overnight for another round of severe thunderstorms in southeastern and south central Wisconsin, with damaging winds and heavy rain.
Parts of southern Wisconsin were doused with between 2½ and 4 inches of rain in the first set of storms, increasing the potential for flooding with more rain.
Campus, city hit hard
One of the Platteville tornadoes touched down 2 miles west of the city and tore through the campus, extensively damaging four buildings and Pioneer Stadium before moving due east and wrecking dozens of homes, city manager Larry Bierke said.
The Weather Service rated it a “low-end” EF2 tornado with maximum wind speeds of around 120 mph.
The second tornado, a high-end EF1, touched down near the Platteville Golf and Country Club, knocking down trees and damaging an apartment building with maximum wind speeds of 105 mph. It was 50 yards wide and was on the ground for about a half-mile, the Weather Service said.
Gov. Scott Walker toured the damage in Platteville around midday Tuesday, spoke to residents who lost homes and told reporters that the state can have the most direct impact helping UW-Platteville get back up to speed in time for the fall semester.
The tornado did extensive damage to the school’s three newest residence halls and the Engineering Building and destroyed light stanchions and moved the huge concrete base that holds the main bleachers at the football stadium, said Ben Cooley, assistant chancellor for advancement.
Cooley said it was too early to determine just how much damage was done and whether insurance claims and work can be completed fast enough to make facilities fully operational by September.
“In addition to (state) Emergency Management, the university system and the state’s Department of Administration will work with (the university) to make sure that campus and those dorms are up and going,” Walker said.
Near miss, tragic hit
The area near Harrison Park adjacent to campus suffered some of the worst damage and was the site of the most severe injury.
Carrie Gates lived with her husband, Josh, in the top half of a duplex on Staley Avenue when the tornado shredded it, leaving her in the rubble outside the frame of the residence with a serious neck injury, said Jason Kaun, who lived in the lower half of the duplex.
“I was told she broke her neck, but I’m not certain of the details,” Kaun said.
Kaun and Josh Gates weren’t home when the tornado struck because they were driving around storm chasing, Kaun said. His roommate, Tyler Steinbach, was home in the lower duplex and found Carrie Gates after he pulled himself out of the rubble. Kaun and Steinbach are each 24 and students at UW-Platteville.
“We were storm chasing and ran into the tornado outside of town and had to run into a house to seek shelter,” Kaun said. “We started getting scared and we tried to call (Tyler and Carrie). We got more worried as we got closer and closer to home.”
After they got back to the duplex, Gates jumped over live, downed power lines as he rushed to his wife’s side, Kaun said.
“You’re lucky you left,” a scraped-up Steinbach told him.
The Gates’ Samoyed puppy, Dexter, and their two cats, Sammy and Pretty Boy, were missing after the storm moved through, Kaun said. But Dexter lifted spirits when he showed up limping and in shock about two hours later. The cats have been seen nearby but haven’t been caught yet, Kaun added.
“When I called Josh at the hospital to tell them we found Dexter, they were ecstatic. Dexter is like a baby to them,” Kaun said. “I heard him run into the room to tell Carrie and I could hear her. I could tell she was happy.”
Around Platteville, hundreds of volunteers showed up to help clear debris for homeowners, and sheriff’s deputies from several counties helped with crowd control.
“Everybody is coming out of the woodwork and it’s awesome,” Bierke said.
On campus, UW-Platteville men’s basketball coach Jeff Gard earned kudos from athletic director Mark Molesworth after Gard rushed to get 150 children — ages 8 to 17 — attending his basketball camp into an interior room just before the tornado struck the Rountree Commons residence hall. The children had been sleeping in rooms on the top floor of the dorm, which suffered extensive roof damage.
“Coach Gard was at his computer when he heard a noise that he said sounded like a generator going on. He looked outside, saw the tornado and then just bolted toward the kids to save them,” Molesworth said.
UW-Platteville also had children attending band, engineering and pre-college camps this week, Cooley said. All of the children were taken to safe shelters and sent home Tuesday after the camps were canceled, he added.
Molesworth said the lights and bleachers were destroyed at Pioneer Stadium, which was once also the summer home of the Chicago Bears. Also destroyed was the stadium’s artificial turf — torn and full of bits of glass and other debris.
Cooley said the tornado wrecked even the immense concrete base that held the bleachers. “That structure is about as heavy and as in place as any structure anywhere,” he said. “The way that nature took that structure and moved it, you have to be a little bit in awe of a storm that is that powerful.”
Two tornadoes combine in Verona
The fall start of school loomed large in Verona as well, where schools Superintendent Dean Gorrell said construction crews will be hard-pressed to get the four destroyed rooms of Country View Elementary rebuilt by the start of the next school year on Sept. 2.
“It’s going to be a big project,” Gorrell said. “We understand that we have a really tight time frame, but we do intend to have that open for kids on Sept. 2.”
Gorrell said the biggest problem will be getting custom-built materials needed for the construction.
“For some of those things there’s an eight- or nine-week lag time,” he said. “Some of those are important roof joists, so there’s only so much you can do before you get those in.”
Steve Brueske, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Sullivan, said the tornado that hit Verona started out as two somewhat weaker tornadoes that caused some damage in Green County, just south of the Dane County line.
“We had two different rotations there and one of the rotations drifted northward into the other one and the two appeared to merge on the radar over Verona,” Brueske said. “That’s why we have more extensive damage in Verona.”
Brueske said the two tornadoes were rated as EF1 with winds of about 95 mph. When they merged the resulting tornado was an EF3 tornado with peak winds of 140 mph.
Recently upgraded radar equipment allowed meteorologists to see debris being lifted as much as a mile in the air, Brueske said. That prompted the Weather Service to issue a tornado warning at 11:51 p.m., 19 minutes before the tornado struck Verona. That led to warning sirens sounding, along with emergency alerts being issued on many cellphones.
“When we issued the tornado warning it sent phones off, and we heard from a whole lot of people that we scared the pants off them,” Brueske said. “But it was nice that people knew about it.”
When the Rev. Jeremy Scott of Memorial Baptist Church in Verona heard about the tornado, he contacted the 911 center to offer the church as a shelter if needed. He received a call around 2 a.m. taking him up on that offer, and five families spent the night at the church.
“If my roof blew off, I’d sure want someone to get up in the middle of the night to help find a place for me,” Scott said. “This church has been in this community for 159 years, so when this community hurts, we hurt. We feel grateful that we were able to help.”
— State Journal reporter Jeff Glaze contributed to this report.