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‘So much devastation’: Wisconsin wakes to aftermath of damaging wind storm

Western Wisconsin city of Stanley saw numerous buildings reduced to rubble

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Storm damage, including downed trees, is seen in Stanley, Wis
Storm damage, including downed trees, is seen in Stanley, Wis. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a powerful wind storm swept through the state overnight. Rich Kremer/WPR

Wednesday night, Kelly Loible and her husband turned on the news to watch the weather. They hoped to learn what to expect from a massive wind storm sweeping its way through Wisconsin and the upper Midwest. At around 9:20 p.m., everything was still.

“We got up and looked out the window. There wasn’t a stitch of wind. There wasn’t anything going on … and all of a sudden, it just sounded like the roof was ripping off the building,” Loible said.

She and her husband own Kelly Grill in Stanley, a small city about 35 miles east of Eau Claire — where most of the state’s damage occurred. The restaurant now looks like it exploded from the inside.

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“The roof is toast. All our windows are busted out and the siding’s ripped off. Our garage is just completely gone,” Loible said. “Both of our vehicles are pretty totaled. Yeah, it’s pretty bad.”

Storm damage is seen in Stanley, Wis. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021
Storm damage is seen in Stanley, Wis. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a powerful wind storm swept through the state overnight. Rich Kremer/WPR

The unusually strong winter wind storm resulted in multiple reports of downed trees, branches and power lines throughout the state.

In a 2:44 a.m. Facebook post, the Stanley Police Department wrote that there was “so much devastation” in the community, but no injuries had been reported. Several houses have blown out windows, missing sections of roof and large trees laying on them. The brick walls of a historic depot used for city storage were toppled by winds as a bent aluminum fishing boat sat nearby on the street.

Stanley Fire Department Capt. Jeff Ryba said a handful of people spent the night at Stanley Community Center, which is also serving as a Red Cross aid station and warming shelter.

Richard Washburn, 75, was one of the people who stayed at the community center overnight after a tree crashed into his house bringing a utility pole dangerously close to his dwellings.

“I was sitting there watching TV and all of a sudden, boomity crash and lights went out,” Washburn said, adding that the storm sounded like a freight train. “I was scared. I started praying, so the Lord was with me.”

Dozens of volunteers gathered at community center Thursday morning to help with clean up.

Ryba, who said he got 1 hour of sleep last night, was coordinating the volunteers and assigning them to crews.

“They’re cleaning up, whether it be cut up trees, cleaning up debris, piling everything on the curbside. And then we have our units that will be picking that up and curbside and hauling it to disposal sites,” Ryba said.

School in the Stanley-Boyd Area School District was canceled on Thursday as cleanup efforts began.

Storm damage is seen in Stanley, Wis. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021
Storm damage is seen in Stanley, Wis. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a powerful wind storm swept through the state overnight. Rich Kremer/WPR

Storm brought winds gusts of up to 76 mph

The wind storm was part of an unprecedented December weather system that included record-high temperatures across the state and a mid-December tornado warning for a powerful, multi-state storm system.

The National Weather Service reported that strong wind gusts of around 50 to 60 mph were still possible Thursday morning, but that winds would gradually weaken through the morning. A high wind warnings expired at 6 a.m. for the state’s western counties and at 9 a.m. for eastern counties.

As of 4 p.m. Thursday, many people were still experience power outages. Power utility We Energies reported 40,727 customers in Wisconsin were without power. Alliant Energy reported 668 outages across the upper Midwest, mostly in Wisconsin and Iowa. Xcel Energy reported 649 outages in Wisconsin and Minnesota. And Wisconsin Public Service reported 1,478 outages and 33,683 customers affected.

Emergency workers respond to storm damage in Stanley
Emergency workers respond to storm damage in Stanley, Wis. on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, after a powerful wind storm swept through the state overnight. Rich Kremer/WPR

The highest measured wind speeds overnight were recorded in north central Wisconsin at the Rhinelander Airport, with wind gusts of 76 mph. The Sheboygan Airport recorded wind gusts of 66 mph, the Kenosha Airport recorded 64 mph gusts, and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee saw gusts of 63 mph. Madison’s Dane County Regional Airport recorded gusts of 56 mph while Rock County Airport in Janesville saw winds of 47 mph.

The National Weather Service office in La Crosse reported that the storm was “the most 75+ mph thunderstorm wind gusts in a day since 2004.” Weather Service officials tweeted that the storm damage would have been “much, much worse” had trees not already lost their leaves for the winter.

In Milwaukee, 14 public schools had moved to virtual learning due to the power outages. The district was encouraging students who didn’t have power at home to go to a Milwaukee Public Library branch to participate in virtual learning.

Some Northwoods school districts had also canceled classes, including Tomahawk, Crandon and Rhinelander.

Storm rolled through Great Plains overnight

While no casualties have been reported in Wisconsin, authorities say one person has died as a result of the powerful storm system that swept across the Great Plains and Midwest overnight, spawning reported tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa.

Officials with the Iowa State Patrol said a semitrailer was stuck by high winds and rolled onto its side in eastern Iowa on Wednesday evening, killing the driver.

The National Weather Service said the storm was shifting north of the Great Lakes into Canada on Thursday, with high winds, snow, and hazardous conditions continuing in the upper Great Lakes region.

There were more than 20 tornado reports Wednesday in the Plains states, scattered through eastern Nebraska and Iowa.

Editor’s note: WPR’s Hannah Haynes, David Hyland, Hope Kirwan, Rich Kremer, Rob Mentzer and Jenny Peek contributed to this report.

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