One year later, finding evidence of the two tornadoes that hit Platteville June 16, 2014 takes some detective work.
New houses can be found on the lots of that night’s wreckage. New trees have been placed in some areas to replace trees toppled by the EF-2 tornado’s 120-mph winds.
But a slab is all that remains of the former Shell station on Business 151. Trees that survived the tornado’s spinning winds nonetheless show damage, both on the UW–Platteville campus and east of campus. And those people who lived through the tornadoes and the weeks of cleanup that followed haven’t forgotten.
“It’s been a blur,” said Kathy Kopp, executive director of the Platteville Regional Chamber, which raised more than $32,000 in the Tornado Relief Fund for people and businesses affected by the tornado.
“It was such a shock when it happened, and I kept thinking it could be so much worse. And it was worse for some — the Gateses for one, people who had to leave their home, and businesses that didn’t come back and moved.”
“That night and day went pretty quick,” said Platteville Fire Chief Ryan Simmons, whose firefighters were out storm-spotting when the EF-2 tornado materialized just west of the UW–Platteville campus around 10:45 p.m. “You don’t expect to be dealing with multiple tornadoes at once.”
Tom and Renee Sigwarth live three minutes from their businesses, Country Kitchen and DQ Grill & Chill. She remembers hearing “more a roaring sound” and “seeing rain do what I’d never seen rain do.”
Security camera footage from Country Kitchen showed debris being blown into the restaurant from a broken window. Meanwhile, a trash can outside DQ ended up inside, on the opposite side of the building.
“They went west, and my roof went east,” said Sigwarth of a shed on the DQ property, one of the trusses of which ended up in the intersection of Business 151 and South Water Street. “I had Ed’s Café stuff in my lot.”
The first indication of the extent of the damage was a report of U-Haul trucks being blown from the Browning U-Haul lot on South Chestnut Street west toward Rountree Commons. Then 911 calls started coming in of destroyed houses in the Harrison Park neighborhood.
“On an incident like that, that’s one of the harder things — trying to get your arms around what you have,” said Simmons. “Do you have one block involved, or do you have 20 blocks involved?”
One reality of a situation like the tornado is who the first responders on scene are, and they’re not necessarily trained emergency personnel.
“Emergency personnel don’t necessarily save lives in these incidents,” said Simmons. “It’s the neighbors that save neighbors’ lives, because they’re there first.”
With power off and near-total blackness, travel was hazardous, to say the least. Sigwarth said the three minutes between his house and his stores took an hour to drive the night of the tornado. Some Platteville fire trucks had tire damage from driving over unseen debris.
Not long after authorities started surveying the damage, Simmons called for assistance outside Platteville. Fire trucks and ambulances from elsewhere in Grant County were in Platteville by midnight. They were replaced Tuesday by Lafayette County emergency personnel, then on Wednesday by Green County personnel. A former Platteville firefighter ended up responding to two fire calls after power was restored, on a Monroe fire truck
One business that lost its building was Spring Green Lawn Care, whose building on the Browning property on South Chestnut Street disintegrated in the 120-mph winds. Spring Green is now on Enterprise Drive.
More traumatic, though, may have been the toppled gravestones at Hillside Cemetery. A group of volunteers spent much of the summer putting the broken and toppled gravestones back together. Those are repaired, though the toppled trees have not been replaced.
“To the people that are used to it, it’s very hard, but at least it’s cleaned up,” she said.
The EF-2 damage was more apparent than the damage from the other tornado that caused damage at Emerald Court Apartments.
“We knew there were trees down in the area, but we weren’t getting reports from residents of the damage,” said Simmons.
Country Kitchen reopened three days after the tornado despite interior damage, and DQ Grill & Chill opened one day later, despite significant exterior damage. He estimated damage to the two at more than $250,000, between building damage and food that had to be thrown out.
Kopp still sees what she called “scars” — the ravine on Wisconsin 80/81, and toppled trees on the north side of West Business 151 and the south side of East Business 151. She said the city has no plans to clean up those areas.
“I’m hoping we can make something happen there somehow,” she said. “It’s a reminder that I would really like to go away.”
Kopp became an authority on disaster recovery fundraising through the Tornado Relief Fund, as well as the importance of disaster recovery plans for businesses.
“It was very eye-opening,” she said. “Every single person needs to check their insurance. You need to have a weather radio. You really need to stock up basic food supplies — everybody forgot what it was like without power.”
“You can never be too prepared,” said Simmons. “You always find ways to become more efficient. When you think you have things divided down to small enough chunks, you may not.”
The most positive result of the tornado was the number of people and groups who worked together to repair the damage, starting soon after the tornadoes left Platteville.
“We’re like any other town, and we all have our challenges, and we’ve all got a mission and purpose, and sometimes they don’t all seem to mesh,” said Kopp. “When the tornado happened, all of that was put aside — there really was not a group or individual who did not rise to the occasion.
“People just dropped whatever they were doing to help a neighbor. Something like that really brings out the best in people.”
“Throughout the incident, all the departments worked well together — we just came together and got what needed to be done done,” said Simmons.
Before June 16, 44 years had elapsed between tornadoes in the city of Platteville.
“You have these things happen, and you think, ‘those poor people,’ never realizing they could be saying that about you some day,” said Kopp.
“It was surreal — it took time to grasp,” said Sigwarth. “It took probably a month or so before I looked back at what happened.”
“All in all, we were very fortunate,” said Simmons. “What could have taken place, three weeks earlier … there’s no doubt in my mind that had the campus been in session with students there, there would have been fatalities.”