CHETEK, Wis. (WCCO) – One person is dead and more than two dozen people are recovering after a tornado ripped through western Wisconsin Tuesday evening, leveling trees and power lines and ravaging a mobile home park.

Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said Wednesday that the National Weather Service has classified the storm as a tornado. A preliminary damage survey assessment placed the storm in the EF-2 category, with winds in the 120-130 mph range.

The twister touched down around 5:30 p.m. Tuesday just northeast of Chetek in rural Barron County, about 100 miles east of the Twin Cities. From there, the storm appears to have plowed east to the communities of Weyerhaeuser and Ladysmith.

Officials say the man killed in the storm was 45-year-old Eric Gavin. His body was found outside a trailer in the Prairie Lakes Estates mobile home park, which the sheriff described as a scene of “total destruction.”

At least 25 other people in the trailer park suffered injuries, ranging from minor cuts and bruises to more serious wounds from being trapped under walls.

Seventeen of the victims were brought to hospitals for treatment.

The mobile home park had no tornado shelter.

“What we have going on is a miracle that nobody else was injured, and you can see that by the devastation behind me,” Fitzgerald told reporters Wednesday.

Officials say all who live in the mobile home park have been accounted for, including a baby who was found unharmed amid the rubble.

Of the roughly 50 trailers in the park, dozens were destroyed. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is expected to tour the damage Wednesday afternoon.

The sheriff said residents of the park won’t be able to return to their mobile homes for at least a week as crews restore gas and electric service.

The Red Cross is offering food, water and shelter to those displaced.

Also damaged in the storm was a Jennie-O turkey barn in Chetek. Workers could be seen Wednesday rounding up birds that survived.

A neighborhood on the north side of Chetek, next to Mud Lake, is embedded in a forest. But instead of being surrounded by trees, the homes are now covered in them.

It is a familiar walk for Jerry Whalen that became unrecognizable in a matter of seconds.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” Whalen said. “There isn’t one tree in this whole block.”

As Tuesday’s tornado ripped through his neighborhood — snapping trees and slamming them into homes — he and his wife were in Minneapolis for an eye doctor appointment.

“Thank god I wasn’t here,” Whalen said.

They ran into distraught neighbors while on their way to see their mobile home for the first time.

“A tree came down and I think the tree is the only thing that saved the trailer from going over and over and over,” said neighbor Randy Zuleger.

When Whalen finally saw his home, trees were on top of it. His gazebo was destroyed, but his gratitude for being alive was strong as ever.

“It’s just unbelievable, I didn’t think it would ever happen,” Whalen said. “But just glad I wasn’t here.”

The tornado caused the Chetek-Weyerhaeuser Area School District to cancel classes Wednesday — but that did not stop teachers, staff and students from getting to work.

“Our motto at our school is that we take care of each other,” said Larry Zeman, principal of Chetek-Weyerhaeuser High School and Middle School.

That motto roared through the rain, heat and another threat of dangerous weather.

“It’s just heartwarming to see what kind of turnout we have when people are in need. You give a day up for the kids and they come out and work for us anyway,” Zeman said. “A lot of our families and our students and our community members are struggling right now.”

The reality for these families is tough, but their resiliency to power through it all is tougher.

“We’re going to keep working it until it’s taken care of,” he said.

Principal Zeman says it is possible school will be canceled again Thursday, but it all depends on how much more work needs to be done for this community.

As crews continue to clean-up and assess the damage, more rain and possible severe storms are expected.

Comments (5)
  1. Lisa LaBorde says:

    How do people volunteer to help with the clean up?

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