June 7, 2008
County spared; tornado may have hit Racine area
With weather ripe for twisting, gusty winds and earth-drenching rains, Kenosha County sounded its warning sirens Friday afternoon, leaving many residents dreading what would come next.
But it didn’t. There were no tornadoes.
Many sought shelter in their homes, schools and businesses. Cars pulled off to the sides of roads. And yes, hundreds of us released big sighs of relief.
“We didn’t have many downed trees and there was nothing, no major damage … very few broken limbs came down on trees,” said Kenosha County Sheriff Lt. Shannon Rawson, after a local tornado watch expired at 6 p.m.
Instead, this time, Big T sped to the county north of us.
According to National Weather Service, a trained spotter reported a suspected tornado at 3 p.m. at Highway 20 and Britton Road about five miles east of the town of Waterford in western Racine County.
“At this point we haven’t confirmed that it was in fact a tornado,” said meteorologist Chris Franks. “Right now it’s all very preliminary. We want to have our expert speak with the person who spotted it. Until then it will be tough to kind of distinguish from a tornado or even if it could’ve been straight-line winds.”
Franks said the weather service had no reason to doubt the trained spotter’s information and issued a tornado warning based on that information. Weather service investigators would be looking at debris scatter patterns, particularly those coming off old oak trees at the location of the suspected tornado.
“If it happens that it was a tornado it would’ve been very low-level – an EF-0,” Franks said referring to the Enhanced Fujita scale used by weather forecasters to grade a tornado’s force. Tornadoes with a rating of EF-0 have winds between 65-85 miles per hour, based on a three-second gust guideline.
Racine County Sheriff’s deputies reported no major damage. Franks said the suspected tornado caused a number of branches and limbs to break off trees.
There were, however, plenty of people in both Kenosha and Racine counties bracing for it.
Lockdowns in schools
School districts in both Kenosha and Racine counties prevented students from leaving school grounds until posted warnings expired.
The tornado warning forced Kenosha Unified officials to lock down school buildings and – just as the warning was lifted at 3:18 p.m. – students were again told to remain in their respective buildings until 3:40 p.m., according to a district statement.
All after-school activities and sports practices were canceled due to the unpredictable weather.
Ben Schliesman, emergency services director for Kenosha County, said the line of storms that pushed through in the mid-afternoon produced no reports of significant damage.
At about 3:15 p.m., the county’s dispatch center received a report of a funnel cloud spotted near highways H and S between the town of Somers and the city of Kenosha. Although no tornado actually formed, sirens were activated shortly afterward, Schliesman said.
In times of severe weather, Schliesman said it is the county’s policy is to activate sirens for tornados, funnel clouds and winds of hurricane force.
Funnel clouds were also spotted in at least four other locations in Racine County including two at different times north and south of Sturtevant and another to the southeast of Waterford five minutes before the reported tornado. A funnel cloud was also spotted in Franksville at Highway K and Interstate 94.
Rain and sustained high winds also swept through Kansasville during Friday’s storms, but they did not leave much damage behind.
“It really got everybody more worried than anything else,” David Smith, who was working at the BP gas station off of highways 11 and 75 during the storm, said. “The bank shut down, but everything was fine.”
Like Wheatland’s storm
Shortly before 4 p.m. a line of severe thunderstorms pushed through Paddock Lake and later north and east into northern Kenosha, Somers, Racine and Milwaukee counties and into Lake Michigan.
Lightning strikes, wind and heavy rain had been reported in western Kenosha County, where authorities said cars had pulled over to the road due to the weather, according to the sheriff’s department. No injuries had been reported.
In Twin Lakes, menacing clouds were followed by heavy rain pouring out of a blue sky. Minutes later, the sky overhead was absent, save for a line of thunderclouds moving away north.
The quick-moving storms and the ring of tornado sirens from nearby Randall – which was also spared a tornado – recalled for many residents the Jan. 7 Wheatland tornado. That tornado – which destroyed some houses and caused millions in damage – made them more likely to take shelter when sirens rang Friday about 3 p.m., and then again at about 3:30 p.m.
The recent Wheatland disaster made Alyssa Menard, who lives in Wilmot but works at the same Subway, afraid. She worries since Wheatland was hit by a tornado once, it is more likely to be hit again.
“It seems like there’s more of a chance because of the other one,” she said, noting two friends were among January’s tornado victims.
Patricia Danielson was laundering clothes at the Twin Lakes Laundry, 111 S. Lake Ave., and despite the sirens, stayed and finished drying her clothes. Still, she too recalled the January tornado.
“Because of the direction, I thought it was going to Wheatland,” she said. “I thought ‘I hope it doesn’t hit them. They couldn’t use another one, because they’re still recovering.'”
Even after the storm passed, there was some confusion in Kenosha and other communities when storm sirens – blasting the all-clear signal – went off. In the city, the sirens’ tones seem to rise and fall as the siren spins, and can sound exactly the same as the take-shelter warning blasts.
Suspends Jensen hearing
A post-conviction hearing for the Mark Jensen murder case ended abruptly Friday because of the tornado threat in Kenosha County.
Ironically, Schroeder reminded the lawyers the January trial began with a tornado warning. During jury selection, lawyers, potential jurors and others were herded to the basement as a tornado threatened Walworth County. That tornado hit Wheatland instead.
The hearing Friday was cut short after Schroeder got two e-mail messages about a tornado warning here.
Skies were sunny, but winds were whipping and, given his past experience, Schroeder said his choices were either to end the hearing or adjourn to the basement.
In a rare display of agreement on the Jensen case, the lawyers opted to end the hearing.
“The case begins and ends with a tornado,” Schroeder joked.
Kenosha News reporters Jessica Hansen, Brian O’Connor and Matthew Olson contributed to this story.