Barneveld, WI Tornado, Jun 1984 - The Night the Clocks Stopped


On most nights, the sleepy little farming town of Barneveld, Wisconsin, less than an hour's drive west of Madison, turns out its lights early and goes to bed.

Its 500 or so citizens were sleeping rather peacefully early in the morning of Saturday, June 9, despite some torando warnings that come out regularly that time of year.

But by 12:50 that morning, the time all the clocks in town stopped, there wasn't any Barneveld left. Massive tornadoes struck the town, with winds estimated at up to 200 miles an hour. In minutes, almost none of the 400 or so buildings were left standing. Eleven people died, including two members of AAL.

By daylight the shocked townsfolk began to realize how big the disaster really was. The word went out over radio that Barneveld was flattened. Considering the time of night and the fact that many people were in bed, Red Cross and state officials were surprised that the toll of victims had not been even greater.

AAL's general agent in Madison, Jim Gaugert, often gets up at daybreak to jag and heard the early morning news on the radio. Not long after six he was on the phone to Otto Abrams, the AAL district representative in Oregon. Abrams, had been in several AAL disaster response cleanups in the past, and just happened to have in his basement a number of signs he had once lettered.

Abrams stuck a couple of the signs prominently in the windshield of his Oldsmobile, and was off to Barneveld. The signs, plus blinking lights and a several-mile drive along the shoulder of the road past a long line of cars, got hime to and through a roadblock the National Guard had set up.

The field inspection he wanted to do for a telephone report back to Gaugert was almost impossible, so messed up was the town. The roads and streets were buried under lumber and glass and debris and trees. He got two flat tires.

All the downtown section of the town had disappeared, the stores, the police station, the firehouse. Two by fours had been driven upright into the ground by the force of the winds. Cars had been picked up, rolled and flattened to the window line.

Along with most buildings in town, the three churches lay in ruins. On the hillside still stood the bell tower of Barneveld Lutheran Church, but the walls had been smashed flat and buried under the debris of blowing houses and cars. AAL, incidentally, held a mortgage on the church.

The first major effort was to look for survivors who might be trapped, largely the work of the county sheriff, the National Guard and the Red Cross. Only then was there the chance to start doing the cleanup.

At first, with the surface of streets and sidewalks completely buried, survivors couldn't even tell where their houses had once stood. Governor Anthony Earl inspected the disaster by helicopter, but some of his staff who tried to reach the site by care were turned back by the National Guard as merely curious onlookers.

AAL members played a major role in the massive clean up effort during the week that followed. Among the first was a group from Branch 5553 of Oregon, Wisconsin, under the leadership of President Kermit and Beth Traska. The branch used Disaster Response funds to rent a bus to take about 50 members the 50 miles to Barneveld to work. The Rev. Paul Petersen, also arrived on the scene early, dressed in his work clothes. Petersen was featured in the last issue of Correspondent as a gunner who had been shot down over the Alps during World War II.

Abarms put in 17-hour days, organizing AAL branches and members, to the point where the Red Cross advised him to go home and go to bed. At least 14 branches and 1,000 members showed up, hauling debris to the roadside, loading it aboard trucks, and after home owners gave their permission in signed releases, helping individuals search for family treasures.

AAL Disaster Response grants were given to several branches in nearby communities. Abrams said the grants purchased leather gloves, rakes and baskets required by the volunteers who were cleaning the ruined homes. Members of one branch in Wayne, Michigan, even collected clothes and other items, and received financial assistance to ship the truckload of relief supplies to Wisconsin.

The Amish and the Mennonites also came out in force, helping people salvage what they could and serving as a work force of ready volunteers.

On Friday, there were at least 600 AALers helping, probably a record for any disaster response AAL has ever been involved in. By that time, some of the shock had worn off, at least for the outsiders. Abrams reports a sad-faced woman and her son who stood in the ruins of their former home and said, "This is just impossible. I never want to see this kind of destruction again in my life."

But with the help of outsiders and the support that came from the media, many townsfolk did find new reason for hope. Abrams reports he's heard the mention of AAL and its involvement from all parts of the country, especially through news clips that were broadcast on NBC and CBS.

The AAL crew set up a command post at the ruins of the Lutheran church. They worked hard to clear the site and get ready to go ahead with their lives. On Saturday, June 16, a crew of more than 200 worked under the AAL banner. By this time Abrams had put in 131 hours of work in a 10-day period.

Two busloads had come from Branch 4458 at Oregon and were setting up a tent for the Sunday service. Much of the town showed up, and the occasion was a little like the festive celebration Moses once held to celebrate the people of Israel's survival in the passage through the Red Sea.

Many public officials were there, the sheriff's department, the town council, the Red Cross, the highway department. The service was mainly one of prayer and song.

Abrams was so moved by the words of one of the town fathers he wrote them down. "In behalf of the people of Barneveld, we want to express more than our thanks for the massive effort by AAL in organizing 1,000 people to clear up so much of our town and our farm fields and our churches. Dealing with an orgainization that so obviously cares also gives us hope to come back and start to rebuild our destroyed town."

The AAL (Aid Association for Lutherans) Correspondent, September/October 1984 edition