Tornado touches down in Wisconsin, first recorded for the state in the month of February
From a road just south of U.S. Highway 14 in rural Rock County, Justin Schott's home and the home of his father-in-law next door appeared untouched by one of Wisconsin's first February tornadoes.
But just behind those homes — the site of their family crop farm established in the 1960s — the destruction the tornado had wrought was on display.
It had leveled a concrete silo, leaving rubble in its wake. It had torn a roof off another building. Some trees were ripped out of the ground, and branches from countless others lay scattered.
Thursday evening, as the clouds over the farm grew ominous, Schott sent his wife and two children into the basement. He stayed upstairs for a minute more, where the sky was so dark he couldn't make out a funnel cloud. As he headed downstairs, his ears popped and a whooshing sound began.
"It was a noise unlike (anything) I've ever heard," he said.
It lasted about 30 seconds, he said. "And then that was it."
On Friday, Schott's farm was one of several in Evansville bustling with people assessing the damage and cleaning up trees and debris. Rock County officials said all reported injuries were minor.
National Weather Service staff who surveyed properties determined there were two tornadoes: An EF-1 that occurred about 5:15 p.m. near Albany, in Green County, just southwest of Evansville, then an EF-2 tornado about 5:40 p.m. that moved northeast from Evansville to southwest Jefferson County. Winds reached up to 135 mph in the Evansville tornado.
Exact details on their routes and the length and width of their paths are still being calculated, said Tim Halbach, the warning coordination meteorologist at the weather service office in Sullivan. Halbach held open the possibility for the Evansville tornado to be upgraded to an EF-3, as surveyors saw overturned large farm equipment in a barn and wanted to consult with experts about whether it indicated stronger winds.
What was clear in the daylight, though, was that a rare, strong February storm pummeled rural parts of the town and left property owners reeling.
Schott said he'd need to wait for his insurance company to assess the damage before starting in on the broken buildings, but he estimated they'd all be total losses.
He was grateful for the volunteers who had shown up to help, that the houses had survived and that his kids, although a little spooked, were doing fine.
Still, he was astounded at what had occurred.
"It's hard to comprehend," he said. "You don't know where to start."
Residents, officials survey widespread damage
East of the city of Evansville — about 22 miles south of Madison, population 5,800 — evidence of the tornado was everywhere.
The storm tore roofs off houses and barns, downed power lines and trees, and overturned tractors and other farm equipment in fields. Warped sheet metal, pieces of lumber and other debris were strewn across farms and roads. Several roads in the area remained closed Friday.
At one home toured by National Weather Service surveyors and a Journal Sentinel photographer, several windows were blown out. Shattered glass lay in the house, which had been recently remodeled.
Rock County Sheriff Curtis Fell told the Journal Sentinel the scene after the tornado Thursday night was "pretty devastating and dark." Seeing the damage in the daylight, he said, was even more daunting.
At least 20 homes had significant damage or were destroyed, Fell said.
National Weather Service surveyors and emergency management crews visited every home in the area to check whether the residents were safe and to help them evacuate if needed, Fell said.
A state patrol helicopter flew over the area to determine the exact path the tornado took, Fell said, and power and light crews were working to restore residents' power — something he estimated would be done by the end of the weekend or early next week. A town hall meeting was scheduled later Friday for residents who remained without power.
Only a handful of minor injuries were reported, Fell said, with just one person who was in a car at the time of the tornado needing to be transported to a local hospital after the car was pushed off the road. The crews did find some people who used oxygen and had limited amounts because of the power outage; those people were transported to other areas where they could receive assistance.
Fell said it was remarkable that he and his team didn't come across more injuries. He heard of an older woman who was standing in her living room when the tornado ripped the roof off her home and survived basically unscathed.
"Considering what came through here, the fact that only one person got transported by ambulance is almost a miracle," Fell said.
Fell didn't know Friday afternoon how many livestock had died, but he said he knew several residents were trying to find and wrangle loose animals who had run away.
Most people seemed to heed the tornado warnings as they were issued and took shelter, Halbach said. When the storm was east of Evansville, the weather service issued a "considerable" tornado warning, the second of three severity levels, because meteorologists "were seeing debris getting lofted 10 to 15,000 up feet in the air," he said.
That was "a signature to us that a really bad tornado, a strong, violent tornado, is happening," he said.
With power outages and weak cell phone service, Fell said he was trying to get the message out to relatives of those in the area that people were OK.
Events like these are "what you train for," he said. "But when you see it in your own community — it takes a little bit."
Firefighters provide shelter for displaced residents
A warming shelter was set up at the Evansville fire station in case residents needed somewhere to sleep after the storm. A family of four and another individual stayed the night.
And another couple stopped by Friday morning to get water for their pets, said fire lieutenant Brian Shotliff.
By mid-morning, Shotliff and Ken Nehls, a senior firefighter at the department, were unpacking a donation of food from the Piggly Wiggly grocery store that included fruit, snacks, Gatorade and water bottles. They were still deciding what to do with the food, since few people arrived at the shelter, but they were planning to offer it to the public.
"It's overwhelming," Nehls said, adding that that he was amazed more people weren't injured despite the "massive losses" to property. He said he had been awake and working since 5 p.m. Thursday.
In the summer, the fire department is planning to hold a 150-year anniversary celebration. Now, Nehls said, they will have to add the February tornado of 2024 to their history books.
In records dating to 1986, the National Weather Service office in Sullivan had never before issued a tornado warning in February. On Thursday, it issued five.