December tornado rated as EF2 strikes Stanley and destroys buildings but with no lives lost, people come together
Following an out-of-season thunderstorm December 15 that saw lightning flash and the skies light up, the City of Stanley and surrounding area finds itself cleaning up from the aftermath.
Spawning a tornado rated at EF2 and on the ground for seven minutes in the Stanley area, the Wednesday night storm left destruction and devastation in its wake—but also hope.
Cutting a swath of destruction through downtown Stanley, the tornado tore apart businesses like Chwala’s Construction on Industrial Park Drive, pushed in window space fillers at the old depot and sucked out home windows and those of a church, also taking half the roof but not the ceiling off the 1906 red brick depot at First Avenue.
From there it damaged Kelly Grill across the street, along with a long-standing brick building painted yellow just opposite.
Outside the city and further from the twister’s rotational center for Wednesday night’s twister, the Wednesday night storm with its strong winds tore off shingles and downed both trees and power poles, leaving many in Stanley and the surrounding area without power for several days. With power restored to most residents by Saturday morning, the interim was both unpleasant and cold, revealing just how much things like electricity made a difference during winter.
No lights, no water, no heat, no cooking, no laundry—to name just a few consequences of the storm-caused power outage on local residents.
Navigating rooms in the dark and pulling blankets up to keep away the cold, to name some others.
As such, the just built Stanley Community Center in Chapman Park complete with pre-fabricated concrete walls became the center of a massive relief effort from Thursday through Saturday, and a popular place to be, for the time being.
With the Center being set up by Mayor Al Haas along with city clerk Nicole Thiel and alderman Jacob Huff on Wednesday night, the doors were already unlocked when the mayor arrived, as the wheels set in motion for a response to the storm and its damage.
With Fire Chief Korey Hagenson directing local residents to avoid downtown and those who wanted to help to report to the Community Center on Thursday morning at 8 a.m. to be assigned, local residents answered the call, including from places outside Stanley. It wasn’t a storm that many would expect in December—but there were some indicators of abnormal weather, forecast wise.
Before the Storm
The night of December 15, 2021, was preceded the morning of Wednesday December 15 with a heavy ground fog that stayed on the ground well past the usual time for such things, returning at nightfall after a brief space of sunshine. This unseasonal warm weather, it turned out, would have both historic and dire consequences, as a low pressure front moving northward over Wisconsin collided with a high pressure front that was headed eastward, the mixture of the two resulting in a line of storms known as a derecho across Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. From this line would come multiple tornadoes, including at Stanley, Five Mile Creek, and just north of Neillsville, at Christie. More locally at Stanley, the alarm went out via Facebook.
The alarm is raised
It was the night of December 15, 2021. Posting to Facebook at 7:04 p.m., the Stanley Police Department, had a heads up for area residents.
“It appears that we are in for some unprecedented and potentially dangerous weather this evening and into the overnight,” the department reported. “Please prepare your home for the anticipation of an extended power outage. Sustained winds of 30-40 mph are being forecasted along with gusts in excess of 50-60 mph,” it said, advising people to spend the night inside apart from first responders and tow truck drivers.
As things turned out though, the reality was worse than the forecast. Towards 9:15 p.m. the news came in via smartphone alert: a tornado watch from an out of season lightning and thunderstorm with severe winds had just become a tornado warning. Residents should immediately seek shelter in an interior room away from windows. The sirens went off in town, and from that point on all was uncertainty. When things cleared the following morning, the sight revealed would be materially devastating, but without reported injuries or loss of human life.
The storm strikes
Tornadoes in December are rare, but not exactly unheard of. The one that struck Stanley was one of at least 12 spawned in the Midwest from Wednesday night’s storm, the other for Wisconsin being in Clark, Eau Claire, and Trempealeau Counties. The first December tornadoes to strike that state in 51 years per official records, Wednesday’s twisters were rated from EF0 to EF2, depending on intensity and damage.
Stanley’s was an EF2, while prior to the storm of late just six December tornadoes had been recorded in Wisconsin since 1844, extending pre-statehood. Some local residents nearly came head on with the tornado.
“I’m just thanking God and all the angels for watching over us we came within seconds from being in this mess.” Tina Zaszczurinski shared on Facebook of a home off Second Avenue. If our door leading to our garage to our basement didn’t get stuck for seconds we would have went head on with the tornado,” she wrote. Others weren’t quite able to make the basement before the twister hit, like Garth Johnson at Fourth and Franklin.
“I called the dogs and me and them went downstairs,” he said after looking out the upstairs window to what he thought was hail before seeing it was debris on its way. “Didn’t even make the basement,” he said.
Hearing the tornado go over and then going outside later after it was safe to assess the damage, Johnson and his dogs Spirit and Ghost were unharmed during the Wednesday night storm, while several vehicles and trees on his property sustained damage, along with the roof. But while the tornado lasted all of seven minutes, the response would take much longer.
The initial response is given overnight Beginning late December 15 and continuing into the morning of December 16, the response to what had transpired came swiftly, first from police and other emergency responders, then by an army of cleanup volunteers. The first posting came from the Stanley Police De partment at 2:44 a.m.
“So much devastation,” it began with a broken heart emoji— but there was also some good news.
“As of 2:30 a.m. we are relieved to report that the storm that swiftly swept through the City of Stanley last evening only resulted in property damage,” the department reported. “There have been no reports of any injuries to anyone as a result of this storm." Thanking neighboring law enforcement, fire department and Ems personnel for their quick response, the Stanley PD asked that people stay home.
“Daybreak will reveal the true extent of the damages within the city but we are certain this storm will bring out the true defi nition of community as we begin to recover and move forward,” it said. In the meantime, there was school to think about—or maybe not.
“Once we recognized the amount of damage from the tornado in the City of Stanley, school was cancelled for Thursday,” Stanley- Boyd district superintendent Jeff Koenig shared of the school end of things. “We knew this would be a major cleanup effort for the entire community.” Still, there were regrets from the power outage the storm caused. “We always want to have our facilities open to help people in need,” Koenig shared. “It was frustrating the school did not have electricity so we were not able to help in that capacity.“ With nearly the entire staff and several students among those showing up to help later that day, the somewhat unique power-outage day caused off school became an opportunity for service.
“Almost our entire staff was out in the community helping with clean-up efforts or were helping support families in other ways,” Koenig said. “Our staff’s job on a daily basis is to help students and families so it did not surprise me at all to see all of the people who wanted to help each other in this time of need. I was proud to see our staff and students serving our community.” So what did daybreak reveal in terms of damage?
The dawn comes
With morning light came the full reality: buildings effectively destroyed like that of Chwala’s Construction on Industrial Park Drive, others with lost roofs and bent rain gutters or sign metal. The south side of town was without power minus the area of the prison (within city limits), with much of the east side of town out of power as well.
The red brick depot on First Avenue at Emery, rebuilt of native Stanley clay on a 'bigger and better' scale after the fire of May 18, 1906, then closed in 1968 and with a new roof put in just 15 years ago, had seen that protective roof torn away, revealing to light what had long been forgotten, being used until the storm primarily for storing Christmas decorations. Those decorations were mostly safe at Chapman Park as they would not have been had a similar event taken place in July.
A window patch on the back of the depot for unsightly broken glass—before the tornado—had been detached from its place and lay wedged in the space between rooms on the east side of the train stop. Another back window on the depot was taken out as well.
Across the tracks, the house of Richard Washburn on Ma- ple Street had lost much of its roof, while the The Muffler King owned by Todd and Misty Wundrow sustained heavy damage, resulting in it being declared a total loss.
Extending through town in a line from Industrial Park Road at Chwala’s through the east side and intersecting with Franklin at Fourth Avenue, was a line of general home and business damage, with downed trees and branches along with sheet metal strewn about. Roads were blocked off on Broadway south of Maple Street to the Wolf River bridge and on East Maple Street up to Franklin further east, as well as First and Second Avenue and several streets behind the IGA off Washington Street.
South of Highway 29, destroyed buildings on Sawmill Road located between the Stanley Travel Stop and nearby prison saw their building components strewn like so many matchsticks across a pond frozen over by the cold.
To the northeast at the stub end of Eighth Avenue, Dave and Trisha Milas saw the outside walls and roof of their house’s upper story torn away.
The Moon Memorial library meanwhile, was safe, although “closed due to weather” as a sign on the door announced to would-be patrons Thursday and Friday. Sitting empty next door (as usual) was the lot for a potential if not yet actualized addition to the historic structure at 154 E. Fourth Avenue, while down at the Community Center things were gearing up for action.
The cleanup begins
Following the initial assessment was another grim reality: much of the city without power, in December, when heat from a furnace can be crucial to making it through the night. With lack of power came other challenges as well, like no way to cook or take a shower. With many left in the dark without electricity and the light it makes possible, the degree to which residents were without power varied, but the response to Wednesday’s storm was nothing short of powerful—in a different sort of way.
“We’re from Gilman and we woke up in the night with some storm effects,” Molly Goebel said from the community Center staging area of what she and her husband Jared had experienced Wednesday night.
Members at Heritage Baptist on the corner of Fourth and Emery in Stanley, Goebel said she and her husband had come to help out the town, with her staying at the Community Center to help there and Jared going out to help clean up. With school cancelled on Thursday morning, several Stanley-Boyd faculty and students were present as well.
“I like being in school most of the time,” student volunteer Ephraim Holmes shared from the Community Center Thursday morning. “But when I’m out here I know I’m helping. So if that’s what it takes, it’s worth it,” he said. Among those students helping out with Holmes were Storm Tiry, Brady Potaczek, Lauren Potaczek, Sierra Close, and Henry Hoel. But lest the youth show up the older generation, the Stanley-Boyd faculty was there as well, including teacher Dan Halterman, who wasn’t quite sure what would be required but was ready nonetheless.
“I don’t know. I literally don’t know. Whatever they need me to do,” Halterman shared of helping out with cleanup from the Community Center.
Present along with Samantha Kobs, Kayleigh Steinmetz, Ericka Koenig, Jeff Koenig, Joe Hayes, Halterman didn’t have long to find out. Lieutenant Jeff Ryba of the Stanley Fire Department came in seeking volunteers.
“I need four people to go with Tilden Fire,” Ryba announced of another responding agency to Stanley. “Franklin Street to Second Avenue.” Halterman took the call. Also coming in to make recruits was firefighter Amy O'Donnell of Boyd-Edson-Delmar, as a contributing agency.
"Ok, I need four or five people to come with me," O' Donnell said. “We’re going to section three, which will be Second Avenue and North Broadway.” With more than four people answering the call, it was off to cleanup. Brittany Walters from Boyd Ambulance shared her expectations for the day.
“Hopefully no injuries and everything cleaned up,” she said. Also on site Thursday morning at the Community Center were Jay Seehaveer of Thorp, Sue DeBauche (also of Thorp), Rick Hayes, Siobhan Hammett, and Heston Hughes, the last from Emery Street. Each given their assignments in turn, it was out to go work. But cleanup wasn’t all that the situation required.
Fundraisers begun and food donated
Along with the cleanup came meeting human needs. Deputy clerk Shauntia Hale (present along with city clerk Thiel at the Community Center) spoke for many as Thursday progressed.
“I want electricity,” Hale said as a Zone 9 resident when it was reported that Zone 10 had been restored to power. With media showing up from WPR, WEAU, News 18 and Channel 9 to chronicle the disaster along with the Clark County News, Stanley even made ABC News.
City Clerk Thiel shared her thoughts on how things had gone, apart from news coverage.
"The City guys and fire crew did all they could," she shared. “That and the all the local companies and donations.
When lunch time came the teachers returned from cleanup. So how’d it go?
“It was good, really good,” Halterman reported of how the cleanup was going. “Can’t believe how bad it was. It’s really good we have a community of people willing to help,” he said. Kobs agreed.
“It went well,” she said of the cleanup. “I think it was satisfy- ing at first because we could see all the work we were doing. But then when the snow fell it got harder.” With said snow threatening to become a blizzard before tapering off later in the morning, shingles froze to the ground in 20 minutes, Kobs shared.
On hand Thursday morning and night was Dave Nelson of the American Red Cross. As food and other donations poured in he shared what he felt was needed.
"I'm not sure we need anything," he said of specifics. "But we have food and we have shelter and we’ll be here the next couple of days.” With donations pouring in from several quarters and everything from pizza to sub sandwiches on offer, Mayor Al Haas was impressed with the turnout.
“It was astronomical,” he said of the multi-community effort to help. "The fire departments and help from a long list. The City of Stanley appreciates all the help,” he said. With the city still working on a full tally of those who contributed, among those helping were Subway of Thorp and Cadott, Stanley Kwik Trip, and Marshfield Pick N' Save along with Marshfield Farmers Market. Travis and Laura Jenks brought the Marshfield contribu tions along with Jacob Huff, while Dean from Whispering Pines Golf Course at Cadott ordered pizza, both for those in need and helping clean.
For those attending the Friday night game between Thorp and Stanley at Stanley, Courtesy Ford paid admission, “in light of recent events,” it was noted.
One the next several days and in addition to food donation and sports game admission, several fundraisers developed, with a “Stanley Relief Fund” with deposit opportunities at Forward Bank, located at 240 South Broadway Street.
As to more specific efforts, Jesse Frey organized a Go Fund Me page for Dave and Trisha Milas who lost the upper story of their house on Eighth Avenue, while Sarah Souders organized a fundraiser for her friend Nicole Dusek, without a vehicle and significant home damage.
Many other fundraisers were organized in the area as well.
The road ahead
So what now for Stanley and the surrounding area? That remains in flux as of press deadline, but public works opera tor-in-charge John Hoel shared some thoughts along with several who posted to the Stanley Republican Facebook page.
“Now that the ‘dust’ is starting to settle and things are less chaotic I would personally like to thank some folks for al their help with the disaster our small town unfortunately experienced,” Hoel said, than making a list.
• The entire City of Stanley Public Works crew for spending the last four days nearly non-stop to keep the city moving, including Streets, Water, and Wastewater departments
• The City of Stanley Fire Department with countless other firefighters, first responders, and EMTs for hard work and coor dination
• Stanley Police Department and Chippewa County Sheriff’s Department
• The Village of Boyd and Village of Cadott for manpower and equipment
• Westaby Trucking, ABE Concrete, Wellner Tree Service, Smith Restoration, 1st Choice Landscaping, “and countless others” who had brought skid steers and other other help.
All the businesses that made /donated food, drink and sup plies in support of Stanley.
But while a full listing was still being drawn up at press time by the city and mayor, others shared their community appreciation from the effort.
“I am a resident of Thorp,’ Deann Tollefson said on Sunday. “Watching small surrounding communities coming together has been so emotional. It’s been such a rough couple of years for so many. This tragedy I feel has brought what is important to the top of everyone’s mind and heart. So proud to be part of a great community supporting another community,” she said with three heart emojis. At the Friday basketball game against thorp the Thorp P.T.O. was raising money for the Stanley Relief Fund. For other residents, it was about home.
“Stanley will always be my hometown,” Janet Stangret Pearman shared, while Kris Norlien-Krin said, “I’m fortunate to live in such an awesome place,” as her reaction to the response to Wednesday night’s tornado. Carol Fritzler put it simply.
“This is the kind of town I want to live in,” she said. Shannon Freeman said it somewhat differently.
“Stanley will come back stronger,” he said of the storm’s aftermath.