Tornado Aftermath in Barron and Rusk County
On Tuesday, May 16th, 2017 storms passed through Central and Northern Wisconsin. In the early evening hours, a tornado touched down near Chetek, Wisconsin. The tornado took one life and injured 25 others. My heart goes out to the family that lost their father, yet at the same moment its a blessing not more individuals lost their lives.
After touching down over a trailer park, it moved across County SS into a turkey farm. From there the tornado moved to the east through Barron and Rusk County.
That evening shortly after 9:00 am I got a call from the state police and Wisconsin Emergency Management requesting availability to assist surveying damage via aerial coverage. The weather forecast was not stable enough to send up a fixed wing plane and with the limited drone resources in our part of the state, we were the closes assets, nearly 2 hours away.
Wednesday morning, our crew, Brett, Steven and myself, left Marshfield shortly after 4:30 am to make the trip to the damage site. We arrived shortly after 7:00 am. From County SS we could see that hundreds of trees were down, power lines were down and that a turkey farm had nearly been wiped out. There were several news reporters and a steady flow of traffic on the roadway from people wanting to see the damage first hand.
OUR FIRST ATTEMPT
Our first attempt to get photography failed due to the fact the area was still experiencing storms. Shortly after 8 am the rain start to subside allowing us to take aerial shots. To the left was one of our first shots. At the time, my mind wasn’t processing what I was seeing and more or less focused on the objective. Our role was to take photos of the tornado’s path. The photos were shared with law enforcement, safety personal, national weather service, NOAA, utilities and many others. Here is a link to the online data collection that was put together. OPEN MAP
We were at the first site for over an hour collecting photos. Two things I won’t forget, was the smell from the turkey farm and the fact that everyone we met that day had a story. As we left the first point of interest and came clear to us that trying to follow the path of the twister was going to be a challenge. The storm hit an area of the Wisconsin where there isn’t much for roadways, nearly everyone traveling west and east utilize one road, Hwy 8. The damage was south of Hwy 8, each time we wanted to move from site to site, we had to travel back to Hwy 8, travel east and then use a side road to travel south again.
After completing the surveying in Barron County, one thing was clear to me… People Don’t Know! People don’t know what they don’t know, and the news that I had seen made the impact of the storm look like it appear only at one location, which in fact it traveled the better part of 40 miles. We felt it was important to built some awareness of the damages, therefore we compiled a video from footage we took in Barron County and shared it with media sources. Never did we expect that the footage would be carried by all major news networks, reaching an estimate of 30 million people. Here is the complete video, if I had the opportunity again, I would’ve selected different music and maybe include the piece that we took with a local farmer.
Barron County Video | Part 1
We made our way into Rusk County shortly after 9:00 am. By this time, local agencies were getting resources throughout the county to assist with the number of trees that were blocking roadways and power lines that were down. We would travel 2 to 3 miles east at a time, pulling over on the side of the road and take aerial shots. After each stop we would upload the photos to a cloud drive, where officials would download the information and share with command, our contacts was based in Milwaukee and at central command in Chetek.
As we travel throughout Rusk County, we met many individuals, most of them were checking on their neighbors. In some cases farmers were searching for their farm animals that were in pasture when the storm hit. One farmer stopped to tell us about this experience as we were collecting additional site photos.
Much of our day was was spent in the car traveling from point to point, or waiting for rain to subdue so that we could take flight. We worked pretty swiftly only being at each spot for 5 to 10 minutes, however it was shortly after 2 pm when another storm set in that terminated our mission for the day and we left to head home. I was and still am overwhelmed by the number of media stations that shared our content, including ABC World News. We hope and pray that our coverage served emergency services and built awareness for the great need this area will need in the coming months. We were informed that Governor Walker gathered at our first site a few hours after we left had left.
I said, earlier that I was so focused on the objective, that I hadn’t stopped to process what we were taking in. As we started the 2 hour drive home, and I uploaded the final photos and processed the the video for Rusk County. The images of the day started to set in. We (the audience) see the damage, we feel the pain for those that lost everything, however I don’t think we realize all that is taking place in the aftermath around us. It amazed me the number of strangers that came to the area to help, even if they didn’t know anyone or anything. I left with a new respect for our emergency services, we saw first hand hundreds of men and women from every agency answering the call. In a matter of a few hours, everyone was to work, when with power being down in much of the area and even with the poor internet signals, command continued to make progress each and every hour. Coming home to my family and home, I have so many more prayers.