An incredible night of storms across Wisconsin finally ended just after 2 a.m. Thursday when the last of many tornado warnings expired for Milwaukee and Racine Counties.
The storms fired up in far northwestern Wisconsin around 6 p.m. and soon formed a line of severe weather that stretched from the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. The tornado warnings started in Wausau and then were essentially continuous until the storms finally moved out of Wisconsin after 2 a.m.
The extent of the damage across the state was emerging after daybreak on Thursday and resulted in Gov. Tony Evers declaring a state of emergency.
The potent line of thunderstorms arrived early Thursday in metro Milwaukee, generating numerous tornado warnings as well as high winds and near-constant lightning.
The tornado warnings were in effect at 1:35 a.m., including for Milwaukee County.
The storms arrived in Milwaukee after causing widespread damage across the state. More than 80,000 electricity customers were without power across the state just before 2 a.m.
As the storms approached Milwaukee, they prompted numerous tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings.
At 1:13 a.m., the National Weather Service issued tornado warnings for Waukesha and Jefferson counties.
“At 1:13 a.m., tornado producing storms were located along a line extending from near Lac La Belle to 6 miles east of Johnson Creek to near Jefferson, moving east at 50 mph,” according to the weather service.
Residents in the area were being advised to take shelter.
At 7:45 a.m., Milwaukee utility We Energies was reporting about 35,700 customers without power.
Madison-based Alliant Energy was reporting 35,000 customers in Wisconsin were without power just before 2 a.m.
Electricity utility Wisconsin Public Service was reporting more than 22,000 customers were without power as of 11:30 p.m. Wednesday across its service territory in central and northeast Wisconsin.
Numerous reports of trees and power lines being blown down were received from areas of northern and central Wisconsin.
At 12:42 a.m., a tornado warning was issued for southeastern Columbia County, northeastern Dane County, northwestern Jefferson County and southwestern Dodge County until 1:15 a.m. At 12:42 a.m., severe thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes and extensive straight-line wind damage were located near Columbus, moving southeast at 40 mph, according to the weather service.
At 12:26 a.m. on Thursday, the weather service issued a tornado warning for eastern Columbia County and western Dodge County until 1:15 a.m. At 12:25 a.m., severe thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes and extensive straight-line wind damage were located along a line extending from near Cambria to near Rio, moving southeast at 40 mph, according to the weather service.
At 11:55 p.m., severe thunderstorm warnings were issued for Washington and Dodge counties.
At 11:41 p.m., a tornado warning was issued for Fond du Lac County after weather service radar detected a severe thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado 7 miles northeast of Ripon.
Warm, humid air fueled storms
Calling it “a particularly dangerous situation,” the National Weather Service placed nearly the entire state of Wisconsin, including the Milwaukee metro area, under a severe thunderstorm watch around 7:20 p.m. on Wednesday. The watch was to be in effect until 2 a.m. Thursday.
The storms maintained their strength as they reached the Milwaukee area.
“The severe threat continues across (southern Wisconsin) and the risk for damaging winds, with gusts in excess of 75 mph, will remain possible,” according to a statement issued late Wednesday night by the Storm Prediction Center. “Large hail and a couple tornadoes may also occur.”
The storms were moving into an environment of warm, humid air in place over the Milwaukee area. At midnight, it was still 81 degrees with humidity of 79% at Milwaukee Mitchell International Airport.
“The risk is still there,” Marcia Cronce, a weather service meteorologist in Sullivan, said around midnight. “We are keeping a close eye on it.”
Wind, damage reported
The storms had a history of blowing down trees and power lines over northern, west-central, northeast and central Wisconsin.
Multiple trees and power lines were reported blown down in Tomahawk in northern Wisconsin at 8:07 p.m., according to the weather service.
A 70 mph wind gust was reported at 8:40 p.m. in Merrill, which is about 20 miles south of Tomahawk in Lincoln County, according to the weather service. Numerous trees and power lines were reported down in Merrill.
A 78 mph wind gust was reported at Weston in Marathon County at 9:04 p.m., according to the weather service.
Numerous trees and power lines were reported blown down in Wausau.
Tornado warnings were in effect for eastern Chippewa County and northeastern Portage County and southeastern Marathon County in northwest and west central Wisconsin as of 9:15 p.m.
At least two other tornado warnings had been issued in northwest Wisconsin during the evening.
Numerous trees were reported blown down north of Iola in Waupaca County, according to the weather service.
Forecasters had been warning since Tuesday about the possibility of a severe weather outbreak across Wisconsin. The threats detailed in those early forecasts intensified on Wednesday afternoon and evening, prompting meteorologists to declare the situation dangerous.
“Strong/severe thunderstorms are forecast to increase in coverage over the next 1 to 2 hours, evolving into a large, well-organized cluster/possible derecho while moving rapidly southeastward,” according to a statement from the weather service Storm Prediction Center issued at 7:25 p.m. on Wednesday.
As late afternoon stretched into evening on Wednesday, forecasters continued to voice their concern about the potential for a significant severe weather outbreak in Wisconsin.
“This is a particularly dangerous situation,” the Storm Prediction Center said. It’s a declaration that the organization uses rarely and only when there are significant threats to life and property posed by severe weather.
The atmospheric conditions across the state and Milwaukee metro were primed for severe storms, with warm humid air enveloping much of the state, Chris Stumpf, a weather service meteorologist in Sullivan, said Wednesday night.
“The forecast remains on track,” Stumpf said around 8 p.m. on Wednesday. “We’re still really concerned.”
“With the amount of instability that we have and the wind profile, it looks pretty hazardous,” Stumpf added.
Anyone who was camping, whether at a state park, private campground or the EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, was asked to have a plan to seek shelter or already be seeking shelter as the storms approached.
At the EAA, organizers evacuated as many of the campers as possible, first into the EAA museum and later into other shelters in Oshkosh.
While Oshkosh was hit, the worst of the storm hit Ripon, just west of Oshkosh. Trees and power lines were reported down throughout Ripon. Ripon Police asked that residents all remain in their homes and not head outside. Power was out throughout the city.
Police in Hartford in Washington County, also evacuated campers in the area, according to emergency radio traffic provided by Broadcastify.
Unusually high risk
Earlier Wednesday, the Storm Prediction Center upgraded the risk for much of central and eastern Wisconsin, including metro Milwaukee, to a “moderate” risk, which is its second-highest category.
“There’s a pretty significant risk for severe thunderstorms across the state…,” l Mark Gehring, a meteorologist with the weather service in Sullivan, said early Wednesday morning. “The main threat is damaging winds. We could get some winds that are 75 to 80 mph. We think there’s the real possibility of that as this tracks across the state.”
In an update on Wednesday afternoon, meteorologists said the forecast remained on track for severe storms to develop in Wisconsin as evening approached.
“It’s pretty rare that we get to that level of severe risk,” said Tim Halbach, warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service in Sullivan. “We don’t go to this level very often.”
Computer forecast models were “very consistent the past few days leading up to today and nothing has really backed us off,” the forecast, Halbach said Wednesday afternoon. “It’s more of a matter of when and where this is going to end up happening.”
While significant winds were the main concern, there was a risk for tornadoes, too. Numerous tornado warnings ultimately were issued across the state.
The weather service called in extra staff for the day and evening.
“This is our top priority,” Gehring said early Wednesday. “Everything gets ramped up. We’re trying to fine-tune everything.”
“This is the highest risk in the country (Wednesday), this moderate risk in Wisconsin,” Gehring added.
The weather service was urging everyone in the state to have a way to receive weather warnings.
“Review your severe weather safety procedures for the possibility of dangerous weather today,” the Storm Prediction Center said in a statement.
Utility was preparing for storms
Milwaukee-based utility We Energies already had crews working around the clock to restore power that was knocked out by storms this week in its northern Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan service territories, Amy Jahns, a spokeswoman for the utility, said via email early Wednesday.
Meanwhile, crews were preparing for the possibility of severe storms later Wednesday across the areas the utility serves including the Milwaukee metro area, Jahns said.
“We are … closely monitoring the weather and chance for severe storms in southeastern Wisconsin and the Fox Valley. We are coordinating extra staffing and preparing equipment like poles, wires and transformers that we may need if strong storms hit.”
We Energies has a number of power outage safety tips and is reminding everyone to stay at least 25 feet away from downed power lines.