Power outages continue after Wednesday's storm

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, May 18, 2017

WHITEWATER—South Ridge Street is just one block long, but it suffered more than most other parts of Whitewater in Wednesday night's storms, and Whitewater took quite a bashing.

Resident Al Holt came home from a high school concert on Wednesday night after the first storm passed. He had to detour near Cravath Lake, where he saw a man standing in the street, knee-deep in water.

When he arrived home, “This street was a disaster area. Almost like a war zone,” Holt said.

Thursday, it was still hard to find a clear view through the broken trees, poles and cables, from one end of the block to the other.

Whitewater, Janesville and many other communities saw massive numbers of trees and limbs down, resulting in power outages across Rock and Walworth counties.

Alliant Energy started with 2,100 customers losing power. By 5 p.m. Thursday, 240 customers were still without the ability to cool their food or turn on a light in Rock County, another 100 in Walworth County.

Alliant spokesman Scott Reigstad said the storm caused a multitude of outages, each one affecting just a few customers in many cases. Each case, such as a tree on power lines or a broken power pole, required meticulous work.

Reigstad predicted all power would be restored by Thursday night.

WE Energies, which supplies power to Whitewater and other parts of northern Walworth and Rock counties, still had about 50 Whitewater customers without power by 5:30 p.m. Thursday, according to its online outage map.

Another 25 WE Energies customers along Highway 59 between Whitewater and Milton also were still without power.

Most of the Janesville and Whitewater damage came from the first of two lines of storms, which hit Janesville around 6:30 p.m. and Whitewater shortly before 7.

A second wave of storms washed through the entire area a few hours later. That's when the Lake Geneva area got hit.

Lake Geneva resident Jim Waters witnessed what was likely a funnel cloud in Lake Geneva during the second round of storms.

“When you looked up, it looked like something out of a movie,” Waters said.

“It sounded like a train going through,” said Waters, echoing a description of many tornado witnesses.

“It looked like a black, low-flying cloud, and it was moving fast,” he said.

“It had a nice swirl to it,” he said

Waters and his wife took their young son to the basement for about 15 minutes. They were safe, and their home undamaged.

No storm-related injuries were reported in the two counties.

The National Weather Service had not found any evidence of a tornado as of Thursday afternoon.

A tornado warning was issued at 10:33 p.m. Wednesday for Walworth County, following the tornado watch that was activated at 8:37 p.m., according to the service.

A tornado watch for Rock County went out at 3:13 p.m. Wednesday.

The Walworth County damage was from straight-line winds, the weather service representative said, adding that an investigation of the Rock County damage was continuing.

Back on Whitewater's South Ridge Street, Holt was eyeing the power line that serves his house. It was draped across a car in his driveway. We Energies had told him not to touch the car or line, and that he would have to pay to fix the part of the line that had been pulled from the side of his house.

Holt's neighbors across the street had recently moved from Tennessee and were not used to this kind of weather.

“I was scared for my life,” said Brianna Cook, a fifth-grader, who, along with the rest of the students in Whitewater public schools, was enjoying a day off. Schools were closed because they had no power, according to a statement on the district website.

Cook's family was at Wal-Mart when the storm hit.

“All we kept thinking all the way home was, 'I hope the house was still there,'” said Brianna's grandmother, Sandra Herron.

The house survived with minor water damage. But the trip home: “It was ridiculous, seeing all the trees down and poles bent,” Herron said.

Ridge Street remained in bad shape Thursday afternoon. One power pole lay across the street at mid-block, and several other poles leaned dangerously, some cracked and splintered.

On nearby Milwaukee Street, a utility pole was cracked about halfway up. The various utility lines appeared to be the only things keeping the top half of the pole from falling.

About two miles north of Ridge Street, winds tore several large, metal grain bins from their concrete bases at Pope Farms.

“It wasn't just a small part of town. It hit all of the town,” said Kristin Mickelson, spokesman for the city of Whitewater. “It doesn't look like our normal city, but we'll get there,” Mickelson said Thursday.

She said cleanup could continue over the weekend and into next week.

City crews were on the job with a plan minutes after the storm passed, and the sound of chainsaws heard around the town was the sound of neighbors helping neighbors, Mickelson said.

Neighbors also helped pick up the trash. Thursday was trash collection day.

“We're really proud,” Mickelson said of the efforts of city workers as well as neighbors.

Rock and Walworth counties were the hardest hit in the state, along with Sauk County, Reigstad said.

Rock Energy Cooperative, which serves rural areas, told its customers the storm caused about 850 outages.

The cooperative's workers had restored power to all but 90 customers as of 7:30 a.m. Thursday. Nearly all the damage was from trees and limbs falling on power lines.

A barn blew over and broke three power poles in the town of Bradford, according to an email to Rock Energy customers.

The Rock County Communications Center normally has seven staff members plus a supervisor but called in five extra people to handle a record number of calls.

The previous record over the past four years was 215 calls an hour for an ice storm in January, said Brian Becker, the center's operations manager.

Wednesday night, the center fielded 219 calls in the 6 o'clock hour and then broke the record again with 242 in the 7 o'clock hour, Becker said.

The Janesville Fire Department also called in five extra people, said Battalion Chief Scott Running.

“We had 44 calls yesterday and normally have about 25 calls. It was hectic,” Running said.

At one point, the fire department had eight backed-up calls for arcing wires or wires down, Running said.

Janesville police responded to between 80 and 100 hazardous conditions where trees were in the roadway between second and third shifts, said Sgt. Benjamin Thompson.

City of Janesville department of public work crews worked all night, and streets were reported clear by morning.

Walworth County sheriff's Lt. John Ennis, who is the emergency management director for the county, said he was unaware of any major structural damage in Walworth County but said there were plenty of tree branches and wires down, which could have caused minor damage.

The towns of Linn and Walworth were most affected by the second storm, Ennis said.

Gazette reporters Jonah Beleckis, Shelly Birkelo and Jake Magee contributed to this story.

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