Westby, WI tornado July 1983


By Lee Bergquist
and Robert Anthony

A major Fourth of July cleanup and repair effort was under way in Westby Monday in the wake of a tornado that caused $1.1 million damage to homes, farms and businesses.

The tornado skipped through the Vernon County community at 7:20 p.m. Sunday, disrupting telephone service and forcing a temporary shutoff of all electric service because of felled power lines. The twister moved out of the southwest and cut a swath a block to two blocks wide, authorities said.

No serious injuries were reported, but one 16-year-old girl suffered minor knee and eye injuries while in the basement of her family home as the twister reduced the home to rubble. A firefighter also was injured when he stepped on a spike, authorities said.

The damage in Westby was but one effect of a large, fast-moving system of tornados and severe storms that pounded the state with heavy rains and high winds late Sunday, injuring at least 21 people. Elsewhere:

-Six people, including two Milwaukee-area women, were injured at the Eagle's Nest Flowage campground in Juneau County when a tornado turned over their camper, the Juneau County Sheriff's Department reported. Four were treated for minor injuries, a spokesman at Tomah Memorial Hospital said.

Two others, Margaret Lorenze, of Franklin, and Ann Hoffman of Cudahy, were taken to La Crosse Lutheran Hospital, where they were listed in fair condition Monday night.

-In Sauk County, three people were injured when high winds overturned a trailer at Dutch Hollow Campgrounds. They were treated at St. Joseph's Hospital in Hillsboro, a hospital spokeswoman said. Two of the injured remained in the hospital overnight before being released.

-In Lake Geneva, strong winds toppled a large tent during the Lions Club Summerfest Celebration about 11 p.m., injuring at least eight people. The injured were treated for minor cuts, bruises, and burns at Lakeland Hospital near Elkhorn and released.

-In Burnett County, storms damaged homes and barns in Grantsburg, Trade Lake, Spirit Lake, Siren, Coomer and Lipsett Lake, the Sheriff's Department said. A man and a woman in the Spirit Lake and Trade Lake area suffered minor injuries during a tornado. They were treated at Burnett General Hospital and released.

-Just across the state line from Polk County, a 1-year old girl was killed when a storm blew a tree onto the trailer she was staying in with her brother, parents, and grandmother four miles north of Taylor Falls, Minn., a police spokeswoman said.

Karen Marie Schnell, of Crystal, Minn., was dead on arrival Sunday at St. Croix Falls Hospital in Wisconsin. Her brother, Matthew, 3, was being treated for shock and released from the hospital, the spokeswoman said.

In Westby, Mayor Harold Knudtson said about $540,000 damage occurred in outlying areas.

Knudtson said 47 buildings in the city of 1,797 people sustained damage. The Wesby High School campus sustained $100,000 damage, mainly to roofing on the middle school part of the building and a garage, he said.

A 10 p.m. curfew was imposed Sunday to keep residents away from live power lines that were down in the city, he said. The curfew was lifted Monday. Restoration of power was being completed Monday night.

The National Guard patrolled city streets throughout the night Sunday.

Knudtson said the tornado damaged three warehouses before it skippped over the 20-unit Scenic View apartment complex, causing only minor window and shingle damage. It then touched down again, flattening the single-family residence of the Arthur Larson family. Angela Larson, 16, who was home alone, managed to scramble to safety from the rubble.

"That was blown apart really," Dean Warren, Westby public works supervisor said. e said the girl had gone into the basement after she heard the tornado warnings.

The twister also took the roof off a two-story single-family home. No one was home at the time, he said.

Knudtson said a few barns were blown over by high winds and some cattle had to be rescued from under debris.

Other Wisconsin communities spent Monday cleaning up after nature's fireworks.

At the Eagle River Municipal Airport in Vilas County, airport manager Robert Gehring said most of the damage from a Sunday morning tornado had been cleared away by Monday, and the airport was in full operation.

Damage to 13 airplanes, including two that were destroyed, was estimated at $175,000 and $200,000, he said.

Several thousand Wisconsin Electric Power Co. customers scattered throughout the state were without power during outages that began after midnight, company spokesman John Bartel said.

About 975 customers on Milwaukee's Northwest Side near N. 80th St. and W. Winfield Ave. lost service from about 12:25 a.m. to 3:25 a.m. after a tree branch snapped a power line leading from a substation at N. 60th St. and W. Douglas Ave., Bartel said.

Tuesday's forecast called for mostly sunny skies and temperatures in the low 70s, but it should be cooler near Lake Michigan.

The Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee, WI 5 Jul 1983

By Lee Bergquist
Sentinel staff writer

Westby - Angela Larson, 16, hobbled over the twisted debris Monday afternoon that the day before had been her home.

Larson's knees were puffy and bruised and she said her eyes stung from insulation that stuck to everything in this subdivision on the east side of town.

But she appeared in good shape considering she was inside her family's tri-level home when a tornado Sunday night picked it up and deposited it in two big chunks.

"It just scared the hell out of me," she said. "Glass was blowing and the walls were flying. It makes you wonder whether you're going to die. It was an experience that I hope will never happen to me again."

The twister caused an estimated $1.1 million damage to this farming community, nestled among rolling hills about 20 miles southeast of La Crosse.

Larson was home alone when the tornado hit. Her father, Arthur, 44, mother Carolyn, 43, and half-sister Kathy Wachter, 20, were all away.

"I had just gotten off the phone whith one of my friends when the wind started to really blow," Larson said.

"I wanted to look for tranquilizers for our poodle because she gets nervous during storms."

Larson never had a chance to find the tranquilizers.

"The rain was really beating against the house and I grabbed a kerosene lamp and then the living room wall cracked and stuff started flying around," Larson said.

She picked up her poodle, Yo-yo, and fled to the basement.

"Stuff started filling up the basement," she said. When it was over, "I grabbed the dog and I just kind of crawled out over the wall" of the debris-filled basement.

"Everything happened so fast," she said. "I went over to a neighbor and said, 'We don't have a house anymore.' " Indeed, only two chunks of the home stood Monday atop a pile of rubble. Debris from the home spread across several yards in the area.

Arthur Larson, holding a horseshoe he recovered from the yard, said he planned to rebuild the $50,000 home on the same site.

In the meantime, he said, the family would be staying with relatives in Westby.

"I have to thank God that my daughter wasn't hurt badly. It was the grace of God," he said.

Neighbors pointed to several 2-by-4s driven into the ground by high winds one block away. The 2-by-4s had been support braces for the Larson home.

Karen Tollesson, 18, who lived a block away from the Larson, said the tornado, "wasn't real. It was like a dream.

"Glass was flying through the kitchen and we did not even have time to get downstairs."

Her brother, Wayne, 15, said, "The wind was so loud you couldn't hear."

But by Monday afternoon, Westby was returning to normal. Much of the electrical service had been restored, and residents could be seen helping those who were worst affected by the tornado.

The Milwaukee Sentinel, Milwaukee, WI 5 Jul 1983

The weather gave Westby, a community of 1,797 in southwestern Wisconsin's Vernon County, one break at least:

Monday was a nice, sunny, warm day in which to clean up the mess left by Sunday night's tornado that smashed homes, businesses and schools and injured two people.

"They got the power back on Monday, most of the downed trees were cut up - it's sure a lot better than it was," said a Sheriff's Department spokesman. "A lot of people did a lot of work Monday."

Westby wasn't the only Wisconsin community that spent the 4th of July cleaning up after Sunday night storms. A half-dozen tornados twisted their way across Wisconsin, overturning trailers and mobile homes, uprooting trees, knocking down poer lines and injuring at least 23 people.

Westby was the hardest hit, however.

A spokeswoman for the Police Department said 45 buildings suffered some damage, two homes were destroyed and the Westby Middle and High Schools suffered up to $100,000 damage. The roofs of the Middle School and bus garage were blown off. Outside the city, several area barns were blown down or damaged.

Angie Larson, alone while her parents, Arthur and Carolyn Larson, were at the movies, scooped up her poodle, Yo-Yo, and headed for the basement when the storm shattered the picture window in the living room.

Moments later, the house was only a pile of debris. Angie suffered knee and eye injuries.

Also injured in Westby was firefighter Irvine Engen, who stepped on a spike.

The second story of the Ron Olson home was blown off and the house was considered destroyed, the Police Department spokeswoman said.

Area members of a National Guard unit, sheriff's deputies from Vernon County and nearby Monroe County patrolled the area after the storm. There were no reports of looting, the Sheriff's Department spokesman said. Law enforcement officers were directing sightseers away from the city.

In the southern portion of the state, 10 people were injured at least slightly shortly after 11 p.m. Sunday when a tent at the Lake Geneva Lions Club Summerfest blew down on top of a crowd of about 150 people. Eight of the injured were treated at Lakeland Hospital in Elkhorn and released. Two others sought medical treatment elsewhere, authorities said.

Six people were injured when six mobile homes at Eagle's Nest Resort in Juneau County were damaged. Four were injured when high winds knocked over a trailer at Dutch Hollow Campgrounds in Sauk County. They were taken to Hillsboro Hospital.

The ovwer of a trailer home north of Grantsburg in Burnett County was injured when winds blew his home over.

A Bayfield County Sheriff's Department spokesman said it would take four to five days for crews to clean up the mess left over from the seven tornados that went through that area Sunday.

The Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee, WI 5 Jul 1983