Tornado does its worst, brings out Merrill’s best

The symphony of chain saws and drumming of generators started almost as soon as the storm passed Sunday and reached a crescendo Monday morning at first light and went on all day as scores of volunteers poured into the areas hardest hit by Sunday afternoon’s tornado that left a trail of broken trees and destroyed buildings along a path that stretched from Joe Snow Road to Gleason.

Surprisingly, only three injuries were reported, and only one of the victims required airlifting to another hospital.

The hardest hit areas of damage from the twister included two dairies on Joe Snow Road, and then a line running from the MARC to Highway 51 and then another swath just north of the Town of Merrill Town Hall on Highway K. Several factories in the industrial park suffered severe damage, as did the NTC Merrill Center and a residential neighborhood along Hillside Drive. In that neighborhood, no house was left untouched and many were flattened. Several businesses and farms along Highway K were obliterated by the storm.

Lincoln County Sheriff Jeff Jaeger said Monday evening that the National Weather Service in Green Bay was still trying to determine if more than one twister hit Merrill. To the southwest of the areas hardest hit in Lincoln County, Little Chicago and Hamburg in Marathon County suffered property damage and Bloomville and even Gleason suffered severe tree damage from the winds.

Compounding the problem for recovery workers and residents in the affected area was flooding from spring run-off and heavy showers north of Lincoln County.

In addition to the property damage in the hardest hit area, trees were heavily damaged in the Sixth Ward and the west side of Merrill that ripped up power lines and crashed into houses. Right after the storm, WPS estimated that 6,000 homes were without power. The utility, along with cable and telephone crews flooded into the area Monday morning to start working on getting the power and other services restored. Trees blocked several roads northeast of the hardest hit areas, and a power line on Highway C lay across the bridge across the Prairie River, cutting off a major traffic artery for most of the day Monday.

After a curfew Sunday evening kept many people out of the affected area, friends, classmates and relatives flooded into the hard hit residential area on Hillside Drive between Pier Street and Airport Road. They brought chain saws, food, vehicles and numbers and started helping the residents clear streets and roads and get at their homes. What many in the area found was what Merrill Mayor Bill Bialecki called “utter devastation.”

“When you look at what happened here, it’s hard to believe the amount of utter devastation that occurred in a small area,” Bialecki said Monday evening as he toured the area with Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and city, county and state officials. “While we got hit hard in town, this is much worse.”

No dollar value had been calculated for the storm damage as of Monday night, but it easily was more destructive than all the other tornados that have struck Lincoln County since the 1950s. The 21 previous tornados to hit Lincoln County since 1950 have caused a combined $1.825 million in property damage.

Repeatedly officials pointed out the spirit of pulling together to help their friends and neighbors that was evident all day Monday in the stricken area.

“This is what the Wisconsin spirit is all about,” Walker said. “It doesn’t matter what your political thoughts are, you put them aside to help out each other in a crisis. That says a lot about who we are.”

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