By Luke Klink | Ladysmith News
Severe weather sheared trees and damaged homes last Thursday, July 4, but fortunately no injuries were reported, after a surprise storm raked a low-level tornado across southern Rusk County.
After the July 4 severe weather passed, property owners along Pulaski and Boot lakes began assessing the damage and clearing fallen trees off roofs, cars and sheds. The next morning, families were still removing trees, brush and other debris off yards, driveways and streets.
No storm injuries were reported, according to Rusk County Sheriff Jeff Wallace.
The National Weather Service confirmed several storms that developed across West Central Wisconsin during the late afternoon and early evening of July 4 produced an EF0 tornado south of Bruce. EF stands for the Enhanced Fujita scale; a 0 rating signifies light damage and winds up to around 85 mph.
In its storm assessment report, the weather service reported circulation at 12,000 feet could be observed in radar loops between 5:22 p.m. and 6:11 p.m. At times, it is possible to see circulations in the velocity, which indicate rotating updrafts, the report stated.
The tornado touched down on the west side of Fireside Lake, on Mud Lake Road. It tracked about 7.6 miles northeast, before lifting on the east side of the Flambeau River, west of Sheep Camp Road. The tornado was on the ground for 14 minutes, with a path width of 100 yards and maximum wind speed of 85 mph. Numerous trees were blown down or uprooted. A few trees landed on lake cabins but no injuries were reported.
The NWS’s severe weather parameters showed a very weak environment for tornado development. NWS staff said the tornado likely formed by localized effects of storm convergence along a boundary in West Central Wisconsin. There was a better indication of severe weather potential once the storm already produced the EF0 tornado south of Bruce.
“This storm only had a weak indication of supercell characteristics,” the weather service reported in a storm environment statement.
No tornado warnings were issued. A severe thunderstorm warning was issued, but only after the tornado already had left behind a trail of damage.
Many people in the storm’s path said the winds hit suddenly, but the storm was over in seconds. Some said they barely had time to seek shelter in a bathroom or other interior room.
Pulaski Lake resident Dan Kelm said his family had just returned from a fishing trip on the water, when the storm started snapping trees on his property. The family was not hurt, but they had trees toppled onto a garage. A pontoon trailer also was damaged.
“It came up really fast,” Kelm said. “Things were just snapping.
“It could have been a lot worse the way the trees were snapping left and right,” Kelm said.
The Kelm family was inside when they began hearing the crack of trees snapping.
“We saw the rotation in the sky toward the west,” Kelm said. “We barely got in the house, when it started raining sideways. You couldn’t see anything, then all of a sudden, the next thing you know, we heard, boom, boom, boom of the trees just snapping.”
The family raced for the safety of the basement.
“We tried. We got halfway down, but it was already done. It was over that fast with the real big damage. This [damage] all happened in 30 seconds to a minute,” Kelm said. “The next thing you know it is still raining with some wind.”
“It hit so fast and you didn’t know it was coming,” Kelm said. “We thought it was just a rainstorm. I never would have thought this.”
“The main thing is everyone is O.K. Everything else can be rebuilt,” Kelm said.
Rusk County Emergency Management Director Tom Hall said the storm caused mostly tree damage as it tracked across the county from the southwest to the northeast. He cited damage at Mud Lake in the town of Rusk, just northeast of Chetek, and in the town of Washington, and at Pulaski and Boot lakes. He said there was also storm damage near Flambeau School and the Rusk County Airport in the Tony area.
National Weather Service staff inspected the damage the day after the storm.
Hall, who also surveyed damage last week, said he did not see anything he thought would warrant an emergency declaration. He said clean-up costs from the towns of Big Bend and Washington likely would not meet the threshold to qualify for FEMA aid, and local property owners are often covered by their private insurance in these cases.
“I am still waiting for the two townships to see if they had any costs incurred to qualify for disaster fund assistance,” Hall said.
The National Weather Service issued a Severe Thunderstorm Warning for Rusk County shortly after 6 p.m. as the storm was approaching Ladysmith from the west.
As the storm approached the sky grew dark and the air went absolutely still, according to Boot Lake resident Bob Christianson. He had one eye on the sky and another on weather radar that showed a tiny red bubble headed for south-central Rusk County.
“All of a sudden you could see a little bit of a breeze starting,” Christianson said.
He ran out to grab a few things off his patio table.
“By the time I got it and came into the house every tree was gone within 10 seconds. The tornado was done, and it went across the lake,” Christianson said. “It was scary.”
When it was over, three trees were snapped off on his property, one of which landed on his house. A well pump house also was knocked over by an uprooted trees.
“It snapped all those trees off. One went into the roof, and the rest went over the house,” Christianson said. “That is how strong it was. It broke them off without ever taking the wires down. One unfortunately took my chimney out. The rest of them are on the other side of the house down toward the lake.”
Then it was over.
“I am not kidding. It went by here. In less than 10 seconds it was done,” Christianson said.
The water on the lake was whipped into a frenzy during the sudden storm, according to Christianson.
“The lake water just went nuts. [The tornado] must have been up just high enough to snap off the trees,” Christianson said. “It happened so fast.”
Pulaski Lake resident Ginnie Ryder said her family quickly headed for the basement after seeing a tree fall into the lake near their home.
“Then it was just done,” Ryder said. “This wind came up pretty fast and pretty strong. I never saw a funnel, but there was certainly wind.”
She expressed thanks there were no serious injuries.
“It did come up fast, and, boy, the lake was busy [for the holiday]. There was enough warning that everybody got off the lake,” Ryder said.
Ryder noted it was nearly 10 minutes after the storm hit that the weather alert came over the radio.
Everybody is helping clean up, according to Pulaski Lake resident Richard Brand.
“You could hear it coming right across the lake with the rain and the wind,” Brand said. “The wind shifted directions, Some trees are down one way and some are the other way.”
Greg Kauffmann called the scene “pretty wild” when the storm hit “and everything started snapping.”
Only one tree landed on the edge of the Boot Lake home he was in.
“It opened up in a cloudburst, and then everything was going sideways really fast across the lake,” Kaufmann said. “Then the snapping started. You could just hear trees snapping off. It was like popcorn. Bam. Bam. Bam.”
Everyone in the house ran for the basement.
Afterward, the whole community turned out to help with the cleanup. The electric utility began replacing power poles that had been snapped off, and crews had the power back on in hours.
“The neighborhood showed up, and everybody helped. It was pretty amazing,” Kaufmann said.