One opinion seems nearly universal from those who have seen the damage caused by the tornadoes that hit Platteville the night of June 16:
It’s a miracle that only six people were injured and no one was killed.
The tornadoes — an EF2, with winds estimated at 120 mph, that struck from the western part of the UW–Platteville campus to Harrison Park to Business 151 around 10:45 p.m., and an F1 that hit near Platteville Golf & Country Club around 10:50 p.m. — caused tens of millions of dollars of damage, with an estimated 12 homes and several other buildings destroyed, and more homes and businesses receiving damage.
“We’ve had a handful of tornadoes, but none that have impacted a municipality with a densely populated area,” said Grant County Emergency Government Director Steve Braun. “I had a number of crews going down afterward, and they all universally said it was a miracle there weren’t more people injured.”
“It’s amazing that that’s all we had,” said Fire Chief Ryan Simmons. “From some of the reports coming in, that was one of my biggest fears, that there’d be fatalities, from hearing reports that there were buildings gone, roofs gone, walls down.”
“I think we get very lucky with having as few injured as there were,” said EMS Administrator Brian Allen.
As of Tuesday, Grant County remains in a state of emergency, declared by Gov. Scott Walker on Friday. Walker toured Platteville and UW–Platteville the morning of June 17. The declaration also applies to Dane County for tornado damage in Verona and Green County for its storm damage.
The last week has been spent in Platteville assessing damage to the UWP campus, and cleaning up damage at UWP, in the Harrison Park neighborhood, along Business 151, and at Emerald Park Apartments on De Valera Drive.
UWP’s three newest dormitories — Southwest Hall, Rountree Commons and Bridgeway Commons — were damaged, as were Engineering Hall, Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium (see Sports, page 12A), the Greenhouse on Southwest Road and Memorial Park. Cars were flipped over or were heavily damaged by debris, and tree damage was extensive along Southwest Road.
UW–Platteville Chancellor Dennis J. Shields and other UWP officials will have a news conference in Ullsvik Hall today at 1:15 p.m.
A third tornado was reported in the Town of Mifflin at Sandhill Road and Jericho Road southeast of Rewey. One house on Major Lane in the Town of Platteville southwest of Platteville was destroyed by what Simmons called an undetermined storm.
Two efforts to aid victims of the tornadoes are under way.
Building Platteville, the City of Platteville and the Platteville Regional Chamber have established the Platteville Tornado Relief Fund. Donations are being taken at American Bank & Trust, Anchorbank, Clare Bank, Dupaco Community Credit Union, Fidelity Bank & Trust, Heartland Credit Union, Livingston State Bank and Wisconsin Bank & Trust.
An account is set up at Mound City Bank. Donations by check can be made to Building Platteville, Inc., P.O. Box 119, Platteville, WI 53818-0119.
A steering committee is meeting starting this week to start the process of assistance. Aid requests will be evaluated by a committee.
The United Methodist Church Wisconsin Conference is sending a case manager to Platteville this week to provide additional assistance. Anyone who needs assistance can also call Grant County Emergency Management, 723-7171.
As for a declaration of a disaster area, said Braun, “We’re looking at that very carefully with the state Emergency Management office. Realistically, considering the number that are required to qualify for federal aid, I don’t think we’re there.”
Braun said his office will be turning in estimates, “and then we work over the next few weeks to refine our guesses.”
Even if Platteville isn’t declared a disaster area, Braun said the state has its own Wisconsin Disaster Fund for disasters that don’t meet the federal damage threshold to cover governmental expenses.
Why no warning?
One of the most common questions asked after the tornadoes was why there was no tornado warning issued.
The National Weather Service has three criteria for issuing tornado warnings — an indication of a tornado on radar, an indication on radar of a severe thunderstorm with significant rotation, and a sighting of a tornado by weather spotters or the public.
A tornado watch was in effect, and the NWS issued three severe thunderstorm warnings for parts of Grant County — one for northern Grant County around 9:45 p.m., for all of Grant County at 10:10 p.m. until 10:45 p.m., and for northeastern Grant County around 10:35 p.m. Around that time, the NWS reported that a severe thunderstorm was likely to reach Platteville by 10:45 p.m., with “winds of 70 mph and nickel-size hail possible” in a line of storms from Lancaster to Centralia, Iowa.
However, no tornado warning was issued — and Platteville’s sirens never sounded — because neither Platteville Fire Department spotters, nor anyone else, saw the tornado before it hit the UWP campus.
“The county makes the request, and they’re in contact with the Weather Service, out of La Crosse typically,” said Simmons, whose department had “over a dozen trucks and vehicles out in and around the city.
“There’s guys with 40 or 50 years of experience with weather spotting, and have dealt with tornadoes that formed around them. You had very seasoned individuals that were weather fronts come through.”
Braun said 20 fire departments and EMS units were out spotting that night. Sirens only went off in Bagley because of a tornado warning in Clayton County, Iowa, across the Mississippi River.
Braun said spotters around Platteville reported winds of 45 to 50 mph, but “There wasn’t anything that was atypical about it. … Like anything, technology’s not perfect. There were spotters out; they just couldn’t see it.”
“The difficult part was that there was no notification that there was a storm of this kind coming through the city,” said Simmons. “There was no reason to issue a tornado warning; they had no inkling of anything besides heavy rain, and there was one little gust of 51 mph one truck measured — nothing sustained.”
The EF2 tornado
Platteville firefighters were called out for storm-spotting around 10 p.m.
UW–Platteville freshman Katie Connell of Janesville, who lived at Rountree Commons and worked at McDonald’s, said she didn’t see the tornado, but “I saw a power line explode in front of McDonald’s.”
Simmons said an assistant fire chief “came upon the Chestnut Street area and saw U-Hauls in the street, and saw there was a shed that looked like it had been blown over.”
Police Sgt. Matt Harcus, the officer in charge the night of June 16, reported “some storm damage.” Shortly thereafter, police Lt. Jeff Haas reported “significant storm damage,” Police Chief Doug McKinley said.
Then came reports of smelling natural gas. “And as we got more resources there we saw it was more widespread than that area,” said Simmons. “When I knew it was more than isolated, I sent a request to the county to send some more resources.”
The Grant County 911 center also started getting calls of Platteville storm damage.
“When something comes through you have a period where you don’t know what’s going on,” said Braun, who called other fire departments and EMS units to go to Platteville, along with the Southwest Regional Technical Rescue Team. “If we know that there were some houses down we’d probably have to search,” he said.
The Livingston Fire Department handled a report of a fire at the Town of Lima garage, which turned out to be a tree limb on a power line.
Platteville firefighters, meanwhile, went door to door to check to “make sure everybody was accounted for and everybody had a place to be that night,” said Simmons.
The majority of home damage was in the Harrison Park neighborhood. On a two-block stretch of Staley Avenue, one house was blown off its basement and disintegrated, and three houses lost part or all of their roofs.
“The most challenging thing in a situation like this is, one, just being able to get from point A to point B within the affected area,” said Simmons. “When you’ve got power lines strewn all over the place, it’s difficult to get people and equipment there to the people who were affected.”
Browning Motors had U-Haul trucks blown across South Chestnut Street and toppled onto their sides toward Rountree Commons.
Spring Green Lawn Care, 715 S. Chestnut St., was housed in a concrete block building just north of Browning Motors.
“In Steve’s building, the roof is gone,” said Don Peterson, father of Steve Peterson, Spring Green’s owner. “Someone said they saw it about four blocks away. All the concrete block walls were pretty much tipped over or blown apart. The only thing left standing of that structure is a wood frame bathroom.”
The EF1 tornado
The second tornado hit about the same time in the area of Platteville Golf & Country Club.
John Huehne, 1485 Judy Circle, was watching the Milwaukee Brewers game around 10:50 p.m. when the power went out. Then, he said, “All of a sudden we heard like a jet or a missile coming in —- a high screaming whistle. Then bang, right into the house.”
Huehne pushed his wife, Carol, toward the basement, but she said, “I think it’s too late.”
What ended up in their house was part of the roof from one of the units at Emerald Court Apartments on De Valera Drive. The debris destroyed their garage door, and toppled a white spruce tree on their lawn.
Emerald Court manager Brian Fritz said four people remain in different housing due to apartment damage.
“We are in the process of putting it back together,” he said. “It could have been a lot worse. Nobody got seriously hurt. Damage-wise it could have been a lot worse.”
Fritz also manages Parview Apartments, which he said received only “cosmetic damage.”
A neighbor noticed another oddity — all the water was sucked out of their toilet. That was the case at the Huehne house as well.
Immediately after the tornadoes, the Fire Department office filled with Fire Department officers, Sheriff Nate Dreckman, city Director of Public Works Howard Crofoot, and former Grant County assistant emergency management director Julie Loeffelholz, who handled radio calls to firefighters. Dispatchers worked extra shifts at the Police Department starting Tuesday for most of the rest of the week.
Firefighters from Lancaster, Cuba City and other communities, and EMS units from Lancaster, Cuba City, Potosi, Dickeyville and Hazel Green staged at Piggly Wiggly within an hour of the tornado.
“The goal if this week is to compare what we have for reports vs. what dispatch has,” said Allen, whose two ambulances were going from one call to the next to “get the ambulance free — get back so if there was another call we could get right in there.”
Platteville EMS had four calls, with Lancaster and Cuba City handling one additional call each immediately following the tornado. About 10 to 15 Platteville EMTs were working Tuesday.
The city’s Emergency Operations Center at the Police Department took over operations once the sun rose June 17.
“You don’t know what you’re dealing with, and even doing sizeup we kept saying the light of day will reveal the true scope,” said McKinley.
The true scope of something else revealed itself that morning. Volunteers from all over Platteville and elsewhere materialized in the damaged areas to help victims.
“What struck me was the uniting of the community and volunteerism,” said McKinley. “Those were my initial takeaways.”
Braun noted the “tremendous outpouring of help and support.”
That help came from as far as Madison. Three U.S. Army recruiters came from Madison to help clean the interior of Browning Motors, 785 S. Chestnut St., and remove a boat was that was stored in the building.
“In a very, very short period of time, there were people more than willing to come and help out, not just the Platteville Fire Department, but citizens of our community in any way they could,” said Simmons. “It was amazing, the number of people walking in from the street, bringing us food and stuff.”
Platteville High School was designated as a staging area for volunteers, in addition to a shelter for people with uninhabitable homes. PHS also hosted a Multiple Agency Resource Center Thursday and Friday for financial and clothing aid for displaced families.
The Business 151 restaurants that had damage — Country Kitchen, DQ and Dunkin’ Donuts — were back open by the end of the week.
“We’re alive; we’re healthy,” said Country Kitchen and DQ owner Tom Sigwarth Thursday afternoon. “Everything else is replaceable.”
DQ was one example of the random and unusual nature of tornado damage. A recycling container that was northeast of the DQ building ended up inside, having gone through a window on the southwest side of the building.
“Ten seconds earlier I had four employees in that place,” he said.
The Harrison Park neighborhood gave more examples. On Staley Avenue, a tree and power pole just missed hitting a house. Destroyed homes sat one block away from houses that appeared to have only minor damage. Cars throughout the area had broken-out windows and dents.
McKinley said there has been no looting “that we’re aware of” since the tornadoes. He said some people had possessions missing, but “we don’t know if we can attribute that to the storm” or theft. “We did consciously try and have increased police presence in the area most seriously affected by the storm.”
The Fire Department was on duty continuously from Monday at 10 p.m., when it was called out for storm-spotting, to Wednesday around 8 p.m. “We had people staffed here that whole entire period,” said Simmons.
Less than 24 hours later, the Fire Department was called back out for storm-spotting Thursday afternoon, though no severe weather was spotted.
“Most of us, Thursday night was the first night we got good sleep,” said Simmons.
UW–Platteville had 105 students living in Rountree Commons this summer, including Connell.
33 hours without power
Power went out in some parts of Platteville as the tornadoes hit. Alliant Energy turned off power citywide around 11 p.m. to evaluate damage.
“There were so many trees down that they had to de-energize pretty much the whole grid so that when they brought it back up they wouldn’t cause more damage,” said McKinley.
Not only were power lines down all over the south side of Platteville, transmission lines coming into the substation on Platteville’s south side were also damaged.
Braun said Alliant “really ramped up a massive operation. … I thought it was going to be longer than it was.”
Simmons said Alliant “did a phenomenal job getting things restored considering the number of lines and poles they had to replace,” about 20.
Some parts of Platteville, mainly south of Business 151 and on East Business 151 on the city’s southeast side, had power restored Tuesday morning. The northwest side of Platteville got power back Tuesday evening. Power to most of the rest of Platteville, except tornado-damaged areas, was restored Wednesday between 8 and 9 a.m., 33 hours after the power went out.
Platteville EMS handled calls related to the lack of power — “people needing oxygen and for some people the anxiety of not having power,” in addition to some heat-related medical issues.
Two volunteers needed medical care, with one taken to Southwest Health, Allen said.
Before and after
One of the biggest ironies of the June 16 tornado may be that a tornado striking UW–Platteville and the city was the premise of a tabletop disaster-planning exercise that was held May 19.
Braun said the EF2 tornado’s path “pretty much followed the same path” as the simulated tornado in the exercise.
An evaluation meeting will be held Thursday.
Volunteers who helped last week will be honored during the Hometown Festival Week’s Party in the Park in City Park July 24.