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Three killed in Wisconsin tornado
By William Wilcoxen, Minnesota Public Radio
June 19, 2001
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Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum has declared a state of emergency in Burnett and Washburn counties in northwestern Wisconsin. Residents there are cleaning up after a tornado Monday night left three people dead and more than a dozen injured. Authorities are still surveying the damage, which is most severe near the town of Siren, Wisconsin.
An auto-body repair shop was among the businesses destroyed in the tornado in Siren, Wisconsin. See a slideshow from Siren.
(MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)

SIREN IS A TOWN OF ABOUT 800, situated amid some of Wisconsin's best muskie and walleye lakes. Many of its businesses are related to tourism, such as Joel's Bait and Tackle on Main Street. Owner Joel Struck's home adjoins the bait shop and he was there when the tornado struck just before 8:30 p.m.

"When the power went out, we had just a few minutes. We didn't even know it was coming. When the debris started hitting the house, I grabbed my daughter. She was sleeping in the crib. I got the boys downstairs. And I didn't even get into the basement by the time it was over. We had debris flying through the house, it took the roof off. Our local early warning siren was broken for two months and they couldn't get a temporary system in. That's what I'm upset about," Struck says.

The town's warning siren was disabled by lightning in April. Local officials say the siren was too old to find replacement parts. They had planned to meet with federal authorities later this week to discuss obtaining a new siren. As the storm approached, the town's police chief cruised the streets alerting residents through his squad car's public address system. The three deaths caused by the tornado occurred not in Siren, but in rural parts of eastern Burnett County.

Once the storm had passed, Joel Struck began helping his neighbors turn off their gas valves. As dawn approached, he found his boat wrapped around a tree about four blocks from his house. After his sleepless night, Struck sat in front of his damaged home and business, picking at a box of donuts, saying the town had not yet digested the change brought by the tornado.

"I think we're still in shock. It really hasn't hit, the seriousness. Our inventory and our life is shattered. It'll probably hit reality tomorrow. But we're still contemplating where we're going to stay tonight. Waiting for the insurance man to show up. So, we really don't know what's going on yet."

Many Siren residents reacted like Cindy Beals, who was happy to have survived the storm. "It was scary. I was upstairs lighting candles because the power went out and I could just feel the change in the pressure. So I just headed right downstaris and hid in my closet and I could hear all the windows shattering. It was scary. Then I came out here and I just thank God how lucky I was because I only had minor damage," she told Minnesota Public Radio.

Lorraine Klopman, who lives in nearby Webster, came to Siren in the morning to check on Beals and other friends and relatives in the area. "My sister lost her house, her furniture. Their truck was down by the lake, the pontoon was up by the house. I haven't been out there yet, but it's a real mess," Klopman says.

Village President Larry Blahauvietz

Wisc. Gov. Scott McCallum
Linda Anderson grew up in Siren and now lives 15 miles to the west in Grantsburg. When Anderson emerged from her basement and found her home in reasonable shape, she began listening to her police scanner and heard about the serious damage in Siren. She pulled into town at about 10 p.m. to help set up an emergency shelter at the school.

"I came from the government center, I had made big pots of coffee for some of the workers. And looking straight south, I could see the water tower. And I'd never seen the water tower ever, because there was always trees and buildings in the way. It was just a real empty, empty feeling," said Anderson.

Anderson was among several who commented on the irony that Siren, boosted by the strong tourist economy of recent years, had seen a development boom recently. The north end of Main Street, where most of the new construction was concentrated, was hit hardest by the tornado.

"Siren has just really expanded the last few years. We've got beautiful motels and new stores, theaters and hockey rinks. And everything is gone. It's just sad," says Karen Howe, whose family owned a retail complex destroyed by the tornado. "It makes you put things in perspective. I mean, it's just stuff. It's just stuff. If someone said yesterday morning it was going to be gone, I would have flipped out. But once it was gone, I thank God my children are alive."

Burnett County Sheriff Tim Curtin says residents and authorities will likely need help from volunteers for the rest of the week.