Merrill Tornado – the aftermath: 10 years later
TINA L. SCOTT
On April 10, 2011, around 6:18 p.m., an EF3 tornado struck Merrill, following a path that started with touchdowns near Little Chicago and, as it neared Merrill, touched down first on Joe Snow Road southwest of Merrill, and then traveled northeast, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. Farms and barns along Joe Snow Road collapsed, Council Grounds State Park and the MARC suffered damage, but businesses in Merrill’s Industrial Park and the residential neighborhoods along and off of Hillside Drive took the hardest hits, completely devastating homes and neighborhoods. Airport Road, Pier Street at Hillside Drive, Balsam Blvd. Aspen Blvd., East Shore Drive, and ROW Road all had homes damaged or destroyed, while right next door or across the street from a decimated home, another stood barely touched or damaged not at all. Then the tornado crossed Hwy. 51 and hit more homes and businesses along Hwy. K before it moved toward the Gleason area. All told, from start to finish, the storm lasted less than 20 minutes, but the devastation was widespread, and the complete recovery effort would take years.
When people emerged from their basements or returned home after a beautiful unseasonably mild Sunday afternoon of activities elsewhere, they came face to face with the most devastating natural disaster in Merrill’s recent history. An entire neighborhood that many people didn’t even know existed, hidden within the once forested Balsam and Aspen Blvds. between Airport Rd. and Pier St. off Hillside Dr, was virtually destroyed. Entire homes were torn apart, garages gone, campers overturned, vehicles totaled. The forested area along Hillside Drive, once a quiet drive beneath a canopy of hardwood and pine trees, was forever changed. The forest was gone. Along Hwy. K, semis were tipped over, roofs ripped off, outbuildings destroyed. Everywhere trees were snapped off and uprooted, some trees fell onto homes, limbs were driven through roofs and jutting out of living room ceilings inside homes, fallen trees blocked roadways, and branches littered the ground. Insulation was strewn everywhere and caught in treetops for miles. Sheets of roofing metal were twisted around poles and trees. Barns were flattened. Steel beams in industrial buildings were twisted. Where homes once stood, concrete steps now led to nothing. Some homes were reduced to just a few walls and a fraction of their personal possessions. On the homes, farms, and businesses in the tornado’s path that were not completely destroyed, huge chunks of roofs were missing.
Debris was everywhere, yet many things were lost forever. It is impossible to describe the utter devastation in some areas in a short number of words.
That day Wisconsin broke records, with the most tornadoes ever recorded in the state on an April day. But of those 15 tornados in the state, the EF3 that struck Merrill was the most catastrophic. Remarkably, only three people were injured and no one died.
At the time, the financial damage as a result of Merrill’s tornado was expected to exceed $11 million.
The immediate aftermath
In the immediate aftermath, the Merrill community went into action. Emergency personnel began canvassing homes, law enforcement organized to create a Command Center that began south of the Merrill Airport and then moved to the parking lot of Hillside Fellowship, and the community started moving. Some came to check on family members, friends, and neighbors. Some came just to see the damage. Traffic became a problem, both on the roads and on the phones. Cell service was interrupted due to the volume of calls and the storm, and approximately 6,000 area Wisconsin Public Service customers were without power. Law enforcement blocked off roads and secured the areas hardest hit. The Red Cross and the Salvation Army came and the National Guard. Insurance adjusters visited homeowners quickly. Emergency crews, law enforcement, and citizens from throughout the area and beyond showed up to help wherever needed. Neighbors helped neighbors. Churches organized clean up crews. Businesses and individuals donated and gave from the heart. People just showed up and started working … moving branches, cutting up logs, helping people collect belongings, offering shelter, and giving comfort.
In the days that followed the tornado, Merrill Foto News reporters and photographers collected photos and documented the devastation. Collin Lueck, Editor at that time; Kelly O’Day, then Sports Editor; and Jamie Taylor, Photographer and Reporter, were all armed with cameras wherever they went and later published a softcover book documenting “Merrill Tornado April 10, 2011 – A photo journal of Merrill’s most devastating natural disaster in recent history.” That subtitle holds true even today. The book was sold, with proceeds going to help those directly impacted by the storm.
Damage and devastation
Many businesses, including Mike Krueger Plumbing, Lincoln Windows, Northern Wire, Russ Davis Wholesale, River’s Edge, Island City LLC, Taylor Insulation, and the Northcentral Technical College Public Safety Center were damaged in the Industrial Park. On Hwy. K, Northway Storage, Allen Dock, Block’s Auto, and Zoellner’s Greenhouse were damaged. The businesses affected were impacted to differing degrees. Some businesses were able to make repairs, while other buildings were a total loss.
With homes, the list of families impacted was even longer. Similarly, some homes were damaged and repairable; others were completely destroyed and a total loss.
One homeowner said it perfectly: “Some of us had damage, but just a short ways away, others had devastation.”
Teresa and Mike Schreiber lived on Hillside Dr. a few houses East of Pier St. After helping one of their daughters move to Minnesota, they had returned to Merrill and were visiting Teresa’s sister and her husband across town when they heard the tornado sirens and decided they’d better get back home. On the way, they called their son, Michael, and urged him to take his then girlfriend and their newborn baby to a location much safer than their State St. apartment building without a basement. They opted to head straight to Teresa and Mike’s home where “Mike and Michael stood out in front,” Teresa said, while she and their son’s girlfriend took the baby down in the basement. “I wanted to be outside,” Teresa said, admitting that she is fascinated by storms and loves thunder and lightning. But her son’s girlfriend “was scared to death,” Teresa said. “She was in tears.”
The guys “finally came in when trees started falling left and right,” Teresa said. They had lived in a wooded area with lots of mature trees and many big tall pines. “We had so many trees out here …” Their basement has a walk-out door on one side, so even after they came down to the basement, Teresa said her husband, Mike, stood inside that door for a bit, still watching.
When it seemed the storm had passed, the Schreibers emerged. “We were downstairs,” Teresa said, “And the minute we starting walking up the basements steps, I could smell pine. I knew something [bad] had happened, because I could smell pine, and there weren’t any windows open. So I knew something was wrong.”
She described the initial shock when they walked outside. “We were devastated,” Teresa said. “Oh, my God” were words they repeated frequently.
A pine limb jutted into their living room from their ceiling, their picture window below it was broken, and the wall below that was cracked. Trees and limbs covered their yard, roof, driveway, and what used to be standing woods behind their home. The car, truck, and trailer with furniture in it that had been in the driveway in front of the garage were now beneath fallen trees, with shattered windshields, twisted metal, and more damage than they were worth. All were a total loss. Teresa’s car, which they had quickly parked in the garage upon arriving home, ended up with a huge dent in it, even though it was in the garage with the garage door closed. It had also been pushed into the freezer in front of the car, and the freezer in turn was pushed into the wall, damaging the wall. They were also without power.
As soon as their thoughts cleared the least bit, they started calling people, and Teresa’s sister and brother-in-law, at whose home they had been only about an hour before, tried getting to them to bring them coolers to save the food in the freezer so it wouldn’t thaw. That was the beginning of their realization of how widespread the storm’s damage was. “There were so many people, rescue vehicles and everything were trying to get through, and it was a nightmare,” Teresa said. Between people trying to get to their own homes, those worried about and trying to check on their loved ones [further complicated because a lot of cell phones weren’t working and 6,000 people were without power], rescue workers trying to help the injured and assess the magnitude of the crisis, and people who were just curious, as well as the roads blocked by fallen trees and debris, “They had to finally close the road,” Teresa said.
The couple’s daughter called from Minnesota to see if they were OK and told them her friend’s parents’ house was “gone.” Their house was only about one-half mile away. Before learning this news, it simply hadn’t occurred to the Schreibers that others might have suffered such a complete and devastating loss. First, you’re in complete shock. “It was a weird time, because you never expect that to happen here. You expect it to be in Oklahoma or Tornado Alley,” Teresa said. Second, your own shock at the damage to your property doesn’t initially allow for the possibility that it might be worse for your neighbors. “Like I said, you walk out – and we walked to the end of the driveway – and looked back at the house, and it’s like Oh, my God,” Teresa said. “Not knowing what happened on the other side, cause you just think, OK, it went through here, and everybody’s is probably the same.” You just don’t realize that others nearby could have it so much worse.
“I mean because, even though we had enough damage that it was a lot of work to clean up, the devastation on the other side – ” Teresa stopped, at a loss for words.
Teresa said they never did truly see the full effect of the devastation, at least not in person, because authorities didn’t let people into the hard hit areas for weeks unless they had identification to prove they lived there. “It was several days before you could even get out onto Pier Street going north,” Teresa said.
After getting the opportunity to put things into perspective, Teresa now said: “We were lucky! We were at the very outer edge. The house next door, they only had trees down which were primarily our trees, so we had to clean that up. Across the street, they only had branches.” While all were without power, two of their three closest neighbors had no real damage except for the loss of power, small branches, and their trees in the neighbors’ yard.
On the other side of Hwy. 51, “It didn’t look like a tornado …”
Rose Skic had also been out of town, on a trip to Milwaukee, and had just gotten back home in the late afternoon. She lived on Hwy. K, across from what used to be the Old Hwy. 51 Truck Stop.
A neighbor, Joyce Graap, came over to warn her that a tornado was projected to hit Merrill around 6:00 p.m., Rose said.
Joyce and her husband, Bruce, lived in a double-wide trailer on a cement slab and didn’t have a basement, Rose said, so the couple stayed at her house as they watched the weather change. Joyce went into the basement, Rose said, but she and Bruce stayed up top and Rose, an avid photographer, got some photographs of the tornado as it approached. Initially, it didn’t register that what she was photographing was the actual tornado. [She had a different picture in her mind of what the tornado would look like.] “Well, it was,” Rose said in hindsight.
“My neighbor said, ‘Rose, look at that. It looks like debris.’ “Rose said she thought it had just looked like birds flying towards the sun. “But no, it was debris,” she said now. “It was actually on the other side of the four-lane. [Hwy. 51]”
Then it crossed the highway and headed in their direction, Rose said. “We had gone down in the basement. I have like a breezeway, underneath, and we had gone down there when it hit, and when it hit, it was like instantly the power went out, the glass broke, it was just loud, horrible. You could hear things upstairs, you know, like when you’re pulling a nail out of a board and it’s squeaky. I could hear things falling and everything, and then – I don’t know if it lasted for five minutes; I don’t know – And then it was over.”
“The door had blown in, in the basement, so at least Bruce was able to push it out so we could get back out of the basement.”
Rose recalled how when she was younger and a warning would come out or she’d be babysitting and a watch or warning would happen, they’d just go sit at the bottom of the basement steps.
“Well, if we would have sat at the bottom of the basement steps [this time], the way the door blew open and all the glass and everything, we would have been just full of glass,” she said.
When they got outside to see the damage, “My whole garage was gone,” Rose said. “It was like a two-and-a-half-car garage and it [the tornado] had just picked the garage up – it wasn’t attached to the house – and it picked it up, took it over, and dropped it down in the woods.”
Rose showed photos she took after coming out of the basement. Her cars still sat where they had been, parked in the garage. The cars were still there, but the garage that had been around them was simply gone. “One car sat where it was,” she said, “And the other was turned sideways a little bit. Some of the contents of the garage were scattered all over.”
“There’s your whole life sitting there out of the garage: bikes, old wagon wheels, antiques, everything,” she said.
“I was lucky in that my house wasn’t totally gone,” Rose said. She described and showed photos of how, on the far end of her ranch style home, “Those windows were sucked right out, not just the glass, but the entire window,” yet she had left a stapler on one windowsill, “And that was still there.”
On another side of the house, where there was a bedroom, the roof was ripped off and water got in and did a lot of damage. But she was blessed because, in another room, her office/junk room, “I had a life’s worth of boxes of pictures in there, and they were never touched,” she said. Those pictures are even more precious now, knowing how close she came to losing them.
“The house was damaged too badly to repair,” Rose said. With part of the roof ripped off, glass blown out of the bay window, the porch gone, patio doors blown out, and skylights sucked right out of the roof, the damage was extensive. Some areas of the house were still intact, but had dirt and debris in them. “They think that the house started to lift, and then the windows blew out at the ends and the skylights blew out, and the patio door blew out into the yard, and that’s maybe when it set back down,” Rose said. The home was ruled a total loss.
“If my neighbor would not have come over there and told me about it, I would not have known there was even a tornado coming. And I would have been just doing whatever when it hit,” she said.
The Graaps [who were in the basement with Rose] found that their double wide trailer was moved sideways a little bit but otherwise seemed intact. “I don’t know if they even had a broken window,” Rose said. But the frame on the trailer had been twisted, so they had to rebuild, and this time with a basement, she added.
Like the Schreibers, Rose had lived in a wooded area until the day of the tornado. After the storm had passed, “There were trees in the driveway,” she said, “and no one was able to get in.”
Immediately after the tornado, she discovered neighbors whose homes she had never seen and she had never met. “I had never seen my neighbor’s house before until the tornado,” she said. “And [Officer] Kurt Perra – he’s my neighbor – he yelled out, ‘Is everyone OK?’ I had never met him before.”
While surveying the damage, Rose said she called her sister-in-law, Michelle, and she, in turn, called family members who came out to help. “My brother, Mark, he came out to help grab stuff or whatever …” He was just one of the family members who immediately came to help at the house.
Then he got the call.
While Mark Skic was helping his sister, Rose, salvage what she could and assess all the tornado damage to her property, he got a phone call saying his business had been hit.
Mark Skic and his wife, Nina, have owned Taylor Insulation Company since 2000. The company itself has been in business since 1943, Mark said, and is a mechanical insulation contractor serving the Midwest.
He wasn’t in Merrill when the tornado hit, but it is a day he will always remember.
“My wife and daughter were at home, and they could see the tornado go through town from our home east of town,” Mark said.
“I arrived home about an hour after the tornado had hit.”
His sister, Rose, said he immediately came to help at her house after the family got word that her home had been hit.
Then, “A friend of mine called and said the tornado had taken a path through the Industrial Park and our building looked like it had some damage,” Mark said. According to Rose, he took off with a couple of the boys and … “It was probably dangerous – you don’t think of it at the time – they walked through the field, because the roads were blocked, to get into their building, so they could take computers and stuff out so they weren’t damaged.”
Mark gives a similar version: “Through a lot of effort, zigzagging back-and-forth, we were able to get to our building. I could tell right away it was a total loss,” Mark said. “The roof on the office was torn off, and half the warehouse walls and ceiling were all gone. A lot of insulation had disappeared and was strewn all over the place.”
“We had just installed a new computer system in the office, and it was raining when we got there, so we started to throw all valuable papers and computers. etc., in covered garbage cans to protect them. Then it started to sink in exactly what had happened.”
“It was definitely shocking,” Mark said. The Taylor Insulation building was a total loss.
Shocked and grief-stricken
Mike and Lisa Handlin and their two sons, then ages 5 and 7, were at 6:00 p.m., Sunday evening worship service at Trinity Lutheran Church in Merrill when the tornado sirens went off. About 10 minutes into the service, the blast prompted the lay minister to calmly suggest everyone head down into the church basement. Some people left and headed home, the Handlins recall, and their boys wanted to go home, too, but Lisa said no. “We’re safe. We’re at God’s house,” Lisa told the boys. “We’re going to be OK. Of all places, we’re safe here.”
After church, Lisa’s sister, Barb, contacted her and urged Lisa and Mike to bring the boys to her house, which was just about one-fourth to one-third mile away from their home, but the Handlins didn’t think it was necessary, despite her urging.
Everything looked fine on their way out of town. “But coming up Pier Street, when we got past VanderGeest’s,” Lisa said with trepidation in her voice even now, “I looked at Mike and said, ‘It went right over our house.” Because to me it looked like a giant had stood and took a giant ax and just stood there and went around in a great big circle, because all the trees were just the stem going up and all the branches were gone.”
Lisa’s sister, Barb Haffemann, who lived on Hillside Dr. to the east of Pier St. (right across the street from Schreibers), didn’ t have any damage to her house. But she told Lisa that the first two things she had noticed when emerging from her basement after the storm were “the smell of pine, and she could see the airport.” The airport had previously not been visible from her home.
Nonetheless, as they were making the right turn from Pier St. to Hillside Dr. to drop the boys at the Haffemann home, Mike still had no clue what they were about to encounter. The bar on the corner and the three little houses right in a row next to it were all completely untouched, he said. And he cited other things he noticed intact on homes in the area. Mike said he told his wife, “Lisa, how bad can it be? Sure, the trees are gone, but how bad can it be? Our house can’t be gone.”
After dropping off the boys and turning in on the road to their subdivision, reality started to hit, however. And fear started to set in. For their neighbors. For their family dog, Nuggs. For what they would find.
“We had to park out on Pier St., which is now Hwy. JJ,” Mike recalled. “My best friend lives right on that corner out here, and we saw the damage to his house. Lisa bailed out of the car as I was pulling in, and didn’t even let me stop, because we knew our dog was home.” That was their only concern, he said. “We didn’t care what was left of our house at that time; we just wanted our dog.”
“The Sheriff’s Department was blocking the road, along with all the trees,” Mike explained. “And Lisa took off running in to get to the house, and I parked the car and I took off and Lisa beat me here.” [He would later learn he had bolted from the car, leaving the keys in the ignition and the door hanging open.] Each of them saw their neighbor, Ada Shales, and asked her if she was OK and then after learning she was, asked if she had seen their dog.
None of the neighbors had seen the dog, Mike said, and by the time he got there, Lisa was trying to get into what was left of the house. After one look at the house, they knew. “There was nothing to salvage, really,” Mike said. “It was more, could we find our dog.”
They finally broke into the sliding patio door going into their basement, breaking out the glass. But despite their searching, they could not find Nuggs. That is when they really became grief-stricken. Nuggs was a golden retriever yellow lab mix they had gotten as a rescue from the Minocqua Animal Hospital, and he was a beloved member of their family.
Despite being crushed that they could not find Nuggs, Lisa started to just focus on the next thing at hand.
“You get in here and you go into recovery mode,” Lisa said. “Mike took care of what he needed to, and I just went into the boys’ room.” She had grabbed some black garbage bags from the kitchen. Their dressers were gone and the south wall of their room was gone, she said, “But the west wall was folded in on their bunk beds, so I went into recovery mode by grabbing their blankets, their pillows, and all their stuffed animals off their beds. I knew kids at their age, that’s what they wanted – their favorite pillows and their stuffed animals that they slept with at night.”
She didn’t bother grabbing any clothes, she said. Everything was wet and covered in insulation. But there were a few precious items of clothing the tornado had spared for her, and those she gladly recovered. One closet was wide open and two or three walls on the room were gone, but the clothes still hung inside on the hangers. Lisa gets visibly choked up when talking about it. “Not half, but probably 20 articles of that clothing were shirts and stuff from my dad,” she whispered. Lisa’s father had passed away, but those shirts were one of her remaining connections to him. Another connection was the bears her mother had had sewn out of some of her dad’s shirts, and each of the boys had one of those bears in their bedroom. They were also some of the precious things she grabbed off the boys’ beds that night. They were safe.
Late that night, Lisa and Mike returned to her sister’s house to find the boys asleep on the couch. When they awoke them, they immediately asked about Nuggs, and they had to tell the boys they had not found him. The boys cried, and Mike said that started him and Lisa crying again. But they tried to convince the boys that this was a good thing, because maybe Nuggs would still be found.
The morning after the tornado, someone at WJMT radio convinced Mike Handlin to speak with the announcer briefly on the air, to let listeners know what had happened. Initially he responded, “I don’t know if I can; I’m messed up. I’m an emotional wreck.” He really only consented to doing the interview because the announcer promised to also let him talk about Nuggs on the off chance that someone might have found him.
After he had been on the air, he got a call from a friend of his, Rob Baumann, who asked him to describe the dog, and then Rob said, “You’re not gonna believe this. I think I’ve got your dog.” It turns out Rob’s mother lived east of Lake Pesobic, and the dog had wandered up to Rob’s girlfriend’s daughter there while he was there cutting some trees the night before from the tornado. The dog immediately took to her, and she didn’t want to let the dog go. Rob said the dog was friendly, smelled good, and was well mannered, so he knew he had to belong to someone, but they took the dog home with them that night. After hearing Mike on the radio, he told Mike: “Where are you? Give me an address, and I’ll be there in 15 minutes.”
The Handlins had received an answer to their prayers, a silver lining in the midst of a dark cloud in their life.
Almost immediately after realizing the depth of their loss the night before, Mike had spoken with his pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Pastor Scott Gustafson, who asked, “How bad is it?” Mike had replied, “We lost everything.” And Pastor Gustafson set him straight: “No, you didn’t lose everything. You’ve got your family, and you’ve got your faith,” he told Mike.
Mike said he probably didn’t truly appreciate those words back then, but he does now.
Lisa recounts a story that moved her, and she has a hard time getting the words out and not breaking down: “One of the things I remember,” she said. “I was in a department store and a lady said, ‘How are you surviving losing all of your precious possessions?’ And I said, ‘I didn’t lose any. I have my kids. I have my husband. I found my dog.’”
The Schreibers had damage to their home, but it was repairable, and that’s what they did. It was a lot of cleanup. But the roof got fixed, the ceiling and wall were repaired, the window was replaced, vehicles were totaled and different vehicles purchased, trees became logs, stumps were buried or ground up, and over the years, some of the undergrowth in the surrounding woods has filled back in. “It’s amazing how much it’s grown back up in 10 years,” Teresa said.
With the loss of all the trees in the back, however, they decided to embrace the open space. “We have doubled the back yard now from all the trees that went down,” Teresa said. “I like the bigger back yard.”
And the tornado, along with some other events of 2011 and afterward, gave them a new perspective. “It also makes you kind of look at life a little differently,” Teresa said. “That you’ve gotta live your life now and not wait for retirement to do fun things. You’ve gotta live your life.”
A time of uncertainty and loss
“I wasn’t sure about rebuilding,” Rose Skic said. “I thought, well, maybe I’ll just buy an existing house; I didn’t know what to do. So actually I just took some time.”
The cleanup was hard enough to tackle without making any hasty decisions. “You load your life up in dumpsters,” Rose said, “And see them drive out of the driveway.” Almost anything that had been in the garage was a total loss and scattered everywhere.
And then it snowed a few times. It was a mess, Rose said.
Overall, “I didn’t have a huge loss of my items in the house. … I was very lucky that things were intact.””
But then, three days after the tornado, Rose lost her job at Northcentral Technical College (NTC). It, too, was sudden, unexpected, and devestating to Rose. “That was actually worse than the tornado,” she said. “Because I thought, Oh my God, I don’t have a job. How am I going to get money to rebuild? I don’t have enough insurance on the house; I was way underinsured.”
“So that was actually more traumatic for me – because the house? The furniture? Who cares. You can buy, you can rebuild. My job is a part of my identity, so that was worse,” Rose said. Her boss and union representative came to her house and sat at the dining room table, in the house with no doors or windows, the skylights blown out, no electricity, and a mess everywhere, to give her the news that her job had been eliminated and to tell her they were sorry, but it had been planned before the tornado.
“But then it ended up I didn’t have a job for a month and there was an opening at Church Mutual and somebody said I should apply for it, so I did, and I got that job which, it’s closer to home. Now instead of driving all the way to Wausau, I’m four or five miles from work. It worked out while I was building; now I could go home on my lunchtime or run home at different times to meet with the contractors. The company is good; it’s stable. I got paid more than I did after 17 years at the tech, so even though it sucked, it worked out better. … Things work out better than what we plan.”
“After the tornado, I lived in my mother’s basement for a year and a half, and that was good, because she has living quarters down there and two bedrooms and a bath. But I looked at other houses and, I took my time and I didn’t start building until January of 2012,” Rose said.
She has now been living in, and enjoying, her new home for years.
Back to business … err the basement
Mark Skic moved his Taylor Insulation business to the basement of the River Valley State Bank temporarily. Their building was a total loss, and they didn’t want to spend the time rebuilding in their previous location, because it would be an interruption to their primary business functions. Instead, they bought a building on Hwy. G and renovated it to meet their business needs. They have been fully operational there since 2013.
Rebuilding … without a doubt
The Handlins decided immediately to rebuild on their lot. They lived with Lisa’s mother until their new home was completed.
Now they have a newer home that fits their family and their lifestyle. And, after Nuggs passed away at the ripe old age of 15 in 2019, they now have a new affectionate family dog named Bear.
Sometimes even the scariest of stories can have a happy ending.