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Etc.: In the dark
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Everyone in Platteville now has a tornado story to tell, after Platteville, which had not had an official tornado in 44 years, got two of them June 16.

Since it was Monday night, I was, of course, at work, putting together the A section of The Journal. I was running late because I had been to parts of our sons’ baseball games, and walked our son and daughter to and from rehearsal for the Heartland Festival’s “Shrek The Musical” at UW–Platteville, the latter in the rain.

About 10:55 p.m., the power went out. The common description of a tornado is “It sounded like a freight train,” though you’ve read in your favorite weekly newspaper a description like a jet engine or missile. I didn’t hear either of those. (I’ve never seen a tornado despite living along Wisconsin’s Tornado Alley — Dubuque to Fond du Lac — for almost my entire life. A tornado passed half a mile away from me, but did I see it or hear it? Of course not.)

So all of us in Platteville were sitting in the dark. Since I couldn’t do any work without power, and had no idea when the power would be back, I went back to the house to make sure everyone was all right, then went out to see what was going on, armed with my camera, smartphone and umbrella. It was one of the most eerie walks I’ve ever taken, since the only light wherever I went was emergency vehicle lights, lights from other passing vehicles, and lightning.

After I left I realized I didn’t have a notebook. I suppose I could have used the recorder on my smartphone, but that would have sucked up battery power, which I wanted to preserve, since no one knew when the power would return. Of course, writing in the dark doesn’t usually produce the best results; nor does writing in the rain. (However, you can charge your cellphone on your laptop if needed.)

I had heard Fire Department reports of problems on South Chestnut Street, so I headed that way, only to find it blocked off at Southwest Road, which wasn’t a good sign, though you couldn’t see why it was blocked off. So I headed to Water Street and then Business 151. What light was there revealed the rather beaten-up DQ Grill & Chill, and, barely visible across the street, what was left of the Shell station.

I talked to the DQ employees who worked Monday night (and had to paraphrase the interview since, again, no notebook), and from what they described — big wind, then no wind, then the feeling of a change in air pressure — that sounded like a description of a tornado to me.

I took a few photos and posted them on The Journal’s Facebook page, then started doing status updates to pass on what I saw and what official sources were telling me. (It turns out a lot of people are on Facebook at 2 a.m. after tornadoes.)

Those sufficed as my notes for last week’s story. (And became part of Down at the Boondocks’ Facebook meme, since they managed to stay open. I think Down at the Boondocks owes me free drinks for my contribution to their meme.) I ran out of power myself around 2:30 and went to sleep, which got me three more hours of sleep than any emergency services personnel.

Back outside after my breakfast of two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a can of lukewarm Coca~Cola, the scope of the destruction, as always after nighttime disaster, became apparent in the morning light. The scope of the tree destruction alone on the UW–Platteville campus was remarkable.

The capriciousness of tornado damage has always struck me. At Ralph E. Davis Pioneer Stadium, the slabs that comprise the rows of grandstand seats got moved by the winds, but three tables underneath the grandstand used for taping football players’ ankles didn’t get moved. The two light towers closest to the scoreboard toppled over, but the scoreboard did not.

Then I walked through the Harrison Park neighborhood, to which I got after maneuvering around low-hanging power lines. After a disaster you try to remember, just for your own bearings, what used to be there. I remembered the Spring Green building, but it wasn’t there anymore. Just on one street, there was one house ripped off its foundation, three houses missing all or part of their roofs, debris everywhere, trees everywhere, and yet houses that appeared to be untouched.

I walked down Business 151, and saw the restaurants that were damaged, and the gas station and Ed’s Café building that looked like a giant had stepped on it, the toppled tractor–trailer still there. You look, and what you’re seeing doesn’t quite process; it’s one thing to see photos or video of tornado damage, but it’s another thing to see it with your own eyes. You find out later that six people were injured, and you think that if you’d heard that six people had been killed, that wouldn’t have been surprising at all.

If last week’s Journal looked a little odd, that’s because our lack of power forced us to pack up and bug out for our printing plant in Lancaster. Our colleagues at the Grant County Herald Independent helped us tremendously to get set up, get The Journal done (with different news plans from 12 hours earlier) and, of course, give us our own “Tornado Refuge” sign. Last week’s B section was pre-tornado, and the A section was post-tornado.

I think there will be more on this subject in this space next week. There’s a lot more to discuss and observe.