The trail of destruction laid down by a tornado Tuesday in northwestern Wisconsin was unusually long — as much as 10 times longer than a typical storm of its strength, the National Weather Service (NWS) said Thursday.
The twister that hit the Chetek area also may be bumped up a notch on the severity scale, said Todd Krause, warning and coordination meteorologist for the NWS in Chanhassen.
The storm was rated an EF2, with winds in excess of 120 miles per hour. Researchers are still looking at “one or two things” that might elevate the storm’s rating to an EF3, with winds between 136 and 165 mph, Krause said.
The tornado hit a mobile home park several miles north of Chetek about 5:33 p.m. Tuesday with devastating effects. One man was killed and 27 people were injured. Fifteen of the 58 mobile homes were completely destroyed, many others were heavily damaged and dozens of families were forced to flee, either before the storm or in its aftermath. One man remains hospitalized in critical condition, officials said.
The twister cut a swath across Barron and Rusk counties, damaging homes and outbuildings and even tossing a camper into a lake.
But the most severe damage was in Chetek.
The EF rating, based on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, measures the severity of tornadoes on a scale of 0-5. An EF2 twister can lift cars off the ground, uproot large trees and destroy mobile homes — all effects that were visible in the Chetek area.
An EF3 storm can throw trains off their tracks, destroy well-built homes and severely damage commercial structures.
Krause called the twister near Chetek “different than most, especially how long it appears to have been on the ground.” A typical EF2 tornado might be on the ground for 5 to 15 miles, he said.
Tuesday’s tornado stayed on the ground for “a minimum of 30 miles, and possibly as long as 60 miles,” he said. Krause added that researchers are studying aerial surveys and drone footage to determine whether there might have been two tornadoes, each with a path of about 30 miles.
Krause couldn’t say why this storm laid down such a long trail.
The NWS is also consulting with national tornado experts as it studies the storm, hoping to compare results on the ground with radar readings to learn how to better predict such storms in the future, Krause said.
On Friday, a multiagency resource center will open in Cameron, Wis., about 5 miles from Chetek, to provide storm victims a central location for access to community resources and government agencies.
“When something happens like this, you could run all over town trying to get all the help you need,” said Barbara Behling, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross of Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, residents and officials continued cleanup efforts Thursday after a tornado so devastating that the local sheriff called it “a miracle” that there weren’t more deaths or serious injuries.
“We’ve never had anything like this in the county,” Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said Thursday. “It’s been a heartfelt experience.”
Fitzgerald said the county’s response to the disaster has been everything he could have hoped for.
Still, law enforcement and emergency service workers will hold a debriefing in a few weeks to discuss lessons learned from the storm response.
“But we’ve got to give everyone a chance to catch their breath first,” he said. “It’s been a pretty intense experience.”
The Red Cross is providing supplies to residents for the cleanup, Behling said. Emergency shelters remain open and residents soon will be able to apply for financial assistance. Medical and mental health professionals also will be available at the resource center, she said.
“We’ll check on whether everyone has what they need — their medications and so on,” she said. “The tornado damage is over, and now we truly dig into the recovery.”