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Rare January tornadoes flatten houses

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Gazette Staff and Associated Press
January 8, 2008

A barn roof blown into a house across the road in Bloomfield Township in southeastern Walworth County may have been the start of the destruction in Kenosha County.


"It was right at the county line," said Lt. Kevin Williams, Walworth County emergency management coordinator."The National Weather Service is coming out today. It looks like that might be where a tornado started to develop. I don't think it was on the ground (there)."


The metal roof blew off a steel pole building at a property on County U, just west of the Kenosha County line. It blew across the road and damaged a house, Williams said.


The damage continued northeast into Kenosha County and was heaviest in the town of Wheatland, near Highway 50 and County O and County P, Williams said.


"That was the first place that got hit and across Highway 50," Williams said."If you go down 50, you can see where it crossed."


About a dozen Walworth County deputies and two city of Lake Geneva officers assisted Kenosha County with traffic control and neighborhood security in the damaged area, Undersheriff Kurt Picknell said.


"It's incredible looking at some of the damage over there. There is total destruction of some of those houses and a block away, nothing," Picknell said.


The Kenosha County sheriff said it's a miracle no one was seriously injured when the rare series of January tornadoes ripped through southeastern Wisconsin and left demolished houses in its wake.


"I have never seen damage like this in the summertime when we have potential for tornadoes," Sheriff David Beth said. "To see something like this in January is mind-boggling to me. This is just unimaginable to me."


Sheriff's officials and emergency government personnel planned to survey the extent of the damage Tuesday.


"They'll have a helicopter in the air to check out the overall view," said sheriff's Sgt. Mark Krueger.


Authorities will determine what homes are no longer structurally sound and escort homeowners back into the damaged areas, sheriff's officials said.


"With the light of day it always looks worse than at night," said sheriff's Lt. Paul Falduto.


Hardest hit was a subdivision in the town of Wheatland, about 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee and just north of the Illinois border where 55 homes were damaged. Twenty-five of those houses had significant damage, Falduto said.


The storm system that spawned the twisters swung north from northern Illinois about 4:15 p.m. Monday, according to the National Weather Service.


Deputies were already in the area, responding to a rollover accident, when they saw a house collapse, Beth said. Windblown debris ripped the emergency light bar off their squad car.


The deputies got the motorist out of the car and then ran to the house.


"They pulled the wreckage from the basement door and got some people out," he said.


There were two or three houses where people had to be rescued, but they only suffered bumps and bruises, Beth said.


In addition to the tornado in Wheatland, another was confirmed south of Wheatland and a third on the north side of Kenosha, said Wisconsin Emergency Management spokeswoman Lori Getter.


Only minor or moderate injuries were reported, she said.


"It sounds like everyone was able to get to their basements, so that was good news," she said.


Aurora Medical Group facilities in the area treated 13 people for storm-related injuries, but all were minor injuries, said spokesman Andy Johnson. Five were treated in Kenosha, five at the hospital in Burlington and three at the center in Elkhorn.


Tim Carpentier was among the Kenosha residents whose homes had tornado damage.


He said he and his daughters, 13 and 15 years old, heard storm warnings just after getting home. Then he heard a roar.


"I was just running down the stairs as the front windows blew out," he said.


The front of his house was flipped over the roof, and neighboring houses had collapsed roofs and natural gas leaks.


Utility crews worked to restore power to at least 3,600 We Energies customers in Kenosha and 1,700 in Wheatland, spokeswoman Irissol Arce said.


Beckie Gilbert, a secretary who works in Wheatland, watched from her company's back door as wispy funnel clouds grew and the tornado uprooted about five trees.


"We saw it in the distance, which wasn't far, and it was pretty scary," she said. "We were watching as it picked up dirt and got really dark, and then it disappeared over some trees."


The tornado warning disrupted legal proceedings in Walworth County, as at least 300 people were evacuated to a courthouse basement as a precaution.


Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce E. Schroeder was presiding over opening testimony in a high-profile murder trial that was moved in Walworth County. He said he couldn't believe it when the deputy said the courtroom had to be evacuated because of a tornado warning.


"It's a first," he said while waiting in the basement. "I've actually had .... warnings occur during jury trials before and frankly I just ignored them. But not in January."


The evacuation lasted about an hour.


According to data from the National Weather Service, Wisconsin previously had recorded only one tornado in January since 1844.


The twisters were part of an odd series of weather phenomena. The temperature in Milwaukee soared to a record for the date of 63 degrees, far above the previous high of 47 in 1965 and again in 2003.


Madison hit a record high for Jan. 7 of 50 degrees, three degrees higher than the previous high in 2003.



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