TURTLE LAKE, Wis. – Carol O’Connor and Tina Simmons were floating calmly on Loon Lake in northwestern Wisconsin when they heard a distant rumbling noise and saw treetops swaying in the wind.
Out of caution, the two St. Paul women paddled to shore and strolled toward the remote, lakefront cabin they had rented for the weekend.
Moments later, they could barely see out the windows, as high winds ripped trees from their roots and cracked limbs all around them. A nearby shed was lifted off the ground by the wind. “It was the most horrifying experience of my life,” said Simmons, who hid under a stairwell during the storm. “It was like a tsunami, with walls of water and wind coming at us in all directions.”
A ferocious storm with a potent mix of hurricane-force winds, torrential rains, hail and lightning tore through a broad swath of northwestern Wisconsin on Friday evening, leaving thousands of people without power and forcing scores of others to flee their homes. While no one was seriously injured, the storm left a trail of visible destruction across much of rural Barron County, about 90 miles northeast of the Twin Cities.
The storm was so intense that the local utility company deployed snowplows to clear trees and other debris from highways so emergency responders could get to stranded residents. In Barron and Turtle Lake, the towns hardest hit, evidence of the devastation was everywhere. Roofs were torn off buildings, siding from barns lay strewn along highways and random debris (even a trampoline) hung from power lines.
Armed with chain saws, fire and utility crews worked through the night and Saturday, cutting up hundreds of downed trees.
On Saturday afternoon, more than 10,000 people in Barron County were still without power, and 115 utility crews from Wisconsin and Minnesota were busy cleaning up debris and fixing power lines blown down by the high winds. They were joined by dozens of good Samaritans, including building contractors, electricians and others, who cruised the wreckage in their pickup trucks on Saturday, helping neighbors dig out and repair damaged buildings.
“It was a powerful reminder of what Mother Nature can do,” said Diane Fowler, who lives in Hertel, Wis., and is a member of the St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin. “I just thank the creator that no one was hurt. It could have been a lot, lot worse.”
The St. Croix Casino Turtle Lake was evacuated Friday night amid reports of multiple gas leaks, casting empty darkness over a normally glittering complex.
But the nearby casino hotel was being powered by a generator and had become a sanctuary from the elements. Drenched residents, some still in their pajamas, poured into the lobby and told stories of harrowing escapes and near misses from falling trees. Across the street, they could see the local bowling alley, which had lost much of its roof in the storm.
Patricia Merrill, a waitress at the casino, said the winds were so strong that her two-story apartment building in Turtle Lake began to shake. When she stepped outside, she noticed the sky had turned a strange mix of bright green and gunmetal gray. Then came the tornado siren and the sight of flying debris. Fearing her building might collapse, Merrill steered her car through the near-blinding rain until she reached a local bar with a basement.
“I’ve never shaken so hard in my life,” Merrill said.
Storm damage was reported across Barron County, including Almena, Barron, Comstock, Cumberland and Chetek. The National Weather Service on Friday reported “hurricane-force winds” in the area, though it was unclear if they were tornadic or straight-line winds. In Cushing, in Wisconsin’s Polk County, a trained spotter recorded a wind gust of 84 miles per hour, the NWS said. Winds were sustained at 73 mph for five minutes.
The heavy rains this spring and summer have saturated the soil, making it easier for trees to topple from their roots.
“Our main concern are the trees and all the downed power lines, and all this rain is not helping anything,” said Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald.
Tony Gehrman, a firefighter in Turtle Lake, said he was paged within minutes after arriving at the fire hall Friday night, and the emergency calls continued until past midnight. Their biggest priority, he said, was clearing roads so that emergency responders could get to frail and isolated people who were without power. They had to clear more than a dozen trees, he said, to reach an elderly man on the outskirts of town who was dependent on a breathing machine and was losing oxygen during the power outage.
Working at a furious pace, Gehrman and his three-person fire crew had cut up and removed more than 100 downed trees with their chain saws. “There was just tree after tree after tree lying on the road,” he said. “It’s a miracle, really, that no one was seriously hurt.”
Audrey Reindahl, a clerk at a BP station in Clayton, Wis., managed to find some melancholy humor in the wreckage. Early on Saturday, she stopped by the local cemetery and found that a large tree had fallen overnight, leaving a gaping hole in the earth next to her late son Michael’s grave. The flowers she had left for her son on Memorial Day were knocked over, but his gravestone was unscathed.
“The hole left by that tree was so big that I can just see him now, trying to climb out of there,” she said, laughing.
Early Saturday, O’Connor and Simmons managed to hike their way out of the small cabin on Loon Lake and get a ride into Turtle Lake. Their car was still trapped by downed trees. Still visibly shaken by the experience, the friends said they plan to stay closer to home on their next weekend getaway.
“God must have encamped his angels here,” Simmons said, “that no one was hurt and so many lives were spared.”
Chris Serres • 612-673-4308