APPLETON, Wis. — Thunderstorms packing winds of more than 100 mph and two tornadoes caused at least one weather-related fatality, destroyed a church, barns and other buildings and cut power for what could be days to tens of thousands of people in central and northeastern Wisconsin.
"The damage is really devastating," said Lt. Kevin Wickman, of the Brown County Sheriff's Department. "There were rooftops of entire buildings that were blown off. ... There was a top of a silo in the roadway in one location that we didn't even know where it came from."
Gov. Scott Walker scheduled a visit to the area for Thursday morning to see the storm damage. He planned to hold a news conference outside a New London church that was destroyed when a tornado struck.
In Marinette County, Town of Porterfield chairman Eugene LaCombe was killed and 23-year-old Keith Franks was injured when they were struck by a vehicle about 1:40 a.m. Wednesday while clearing storm debris from a road, according to county sheriff's officials.
They were in the southbound lane when they were struck by a 19-year-old from the Town of Porterfield. LaCombe's vehicle was parked in the northbound lane with its headlights and flashers on.
Heavy rain, wind and the glare of headlights from LaCombe's vehicle contributed to the driver not seeing the men, sheriff's officials say. Franks is expected to survive.
The most significant damage was reported in and near the Fox Valley. The National Weather Service confirmed two tornadoes hit the region, embedded in the straight-line winds. An EF-2 tornado with winds estimated at over 110 mph struck New London in Waupaca County just before 12:30 a.m., all but flattening Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, then continued southeast toward Hortonville, where hundreds of homes sustained damage from snapped and uprooted trees.
An EF-1 tornado with winds of 100 to 110 mph struck Brown County 25 minutes later, near Kaukauna, damaging two barns and numerous trees as it continued into Calumet County, where it blew down two metal truss towers.
The church's pastor said he couldn't believe it when he first surveyed the damage.
"I came up here and it was far more damaging, far more devastating than I had even pictured in my mind," the Rev. Bil Sutlief said.
Church leaders are considering an outdoor service on Sunday, weather permitting, and hope to rebuild.
"There is a lot of water damage inside, both upstairs and downstairs. There are sections of it that are still dry, but structurally we're still analyzing," Sutlief said.
According to Wisconsin Emergency Management, an elderly couple had minor injuries at a campground in Fremont in Waupaca County near Outagamie County border.
Outagamie County and the Town of Grand Chute both declared a state of emergency. The Outagamie County Justice Center has canceled all court cases and hearings.
The building of Complete Auto Body near Greenleaf was severely damaged and employees began cleaning up Wednesday.
"It's shocking," said office manager Teri Diny. "We'll get a hold of our insurance company, wait to see what they have to say and start rebuilding."
The business suffered damage to tools, equipment and vehicles.
"Pretty much everything we use to work every day," Diny said.
About 53,000 We Energies customers were without power at one point Wednesday, mostly in Outagamie County, after three substations were damaged. The number was down to about 40,000 around 9 p.m. We Energies spokesman Brian Manthey said most customers should have their power restored by early Friday evening.
Debris in roadways is delaying the restoration effort, We Energies spokeswoman Cathy Schulze said.
"They are up against a lot of obstacles," she said.
Wisconsin Public Service spokesman Todd Steffen says about 18,000 customers mostly in Brown, Calumet and Manitowoc counties lost power around 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, but by 8 p.m. it was down to about 2,200.
He expected most to be restored by the end of Wednesday but some may not be restored until Thursday. More than 100 damaged poles need to be replaced, he said.
A power outage in Jackson County affected the Taylor radio repeater and they were not able to page out Taylor Fire Department, but power has been restored, according to Wisconsin Emergency Management.
The American Red Cross opened shelters in New London, Appleton and Wrightstown.
All surgeries were canceled at Appleton Medical Center for Wednesday because they were operating on generator power.
Residential and business damage in Brown County was estimated at about $2.8 million along with crop damage. More than 100 homes were damaged, with one destroyed and one with major damage, according to Wisconsin Emergency Management.
Back in Marinette County, a dock wall near the Waupaca foundry was damaged when it was struck by a ship that broke free from port. A pair of tugs stopped the vessel from hitting a bridge, according to the state.
Other counties cleaning up Wednesday included Barron, Calumet, Clark, Kewaunee, Lincoln, Marathon, Waushara and Wood counties.
Ho-Chunk Nation officials also reported damage to their Pow-Wow grounds.
Wisconsin Public Service said all available crews as well as help from Madison Gas & Electric and Upper Peninsula Power Co. were working to repair damage. WPS said there are more than 100 broken power poles.