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A broken leg, a falling tree and 'chain saws everywhere': EC windstorm hit area 40 years ago

Janell Isaacson-Whitehouse of Eau Claire had just broken her leg in a waterskiing accident.

But crutches didn’t stop her from having a busy summer. She’d turned 16 about two weeks before July 15, 1980, when she and two friends would narrowly escape injury in one of the best-known and most destructive storm events in the Chippewa Valley’s history, a windstorm that would cause more than $150 million in damage and cut power to hundreds of people for over a week.

WATCH VIDEO: Southern Twin Cities and western Wisconsin windstorm radar footage

Today is the 40th anniversary of that storm, conjuring up vivid memories for weather agencies and Eau Claire residents alike.

That night in 1980, Isaacson-Whitehouse and two friends, including 16-year-old Cindy LaRock, caught a 7 p.m. showing of “The Blue Lagoon,” a romantic survival drama starring Brooke Shields, at the mall in Eau Claire.

After the movie ended, the sky was dark. With LaRock at the wheel of a tiny Plymouth Horizon, the three girls headed home, driving north on Clairemont Avenue.

“We were driving by Sacred Heart Hospital, and the sky was crazy,” Isaacson-Whitehouse remembered. “We started seeing lightning strikes hit the ground.”

As the girls drove past Menomonie Street, the wind was starting to blow their small car off the road, and LaRock turned onto a side road. She slammed on the brakes as a tree toppled in front of the car — “about 3 feet in front of us,” LaRock said. She had just gotten her driver’s license that summer.

“We were screaming,” Isaacson-Whitehouse said.

Realizing they weren’t going to make it to their homes on the north side of Eau Claire, the girls saw a house with a light on and pulled into the driveway.

“We plowed into these people’s house, crying and screaming; we probably scared them to death,” LaRock remembered.

“I didn’t even take the crutches,” Isaacson-Whitehouse said. “We just ran and started pounding on the door. The (couple) was kind enough to let us in.”

Followed by a different elderly couple looking for shelter, the girls hid under the couple’s pool table in their basement. LaRock finally was able to call her parents, but before she could tell them she was alright, the phone line went dead.

After the storm passed 30 minutes later, LaRock and Isaacson-Whitehouse dropped off their friend at her west side home, but had to shelter at another friend’s home overnight after they realized they weren’t going to make it to the city’s north side that day.

“There was not one road you could get down,” Isaacson-Whitehouse said. “There were trees covering every road. We had to sit at her house for what felt like days until the roads were cleared to get us home.”

It took LaRock and Isaacson-Whitehouse four or five hours to get home the next day — normally a drive of a few minutes — because so many roads were blocked by trees, downed power lines and debris.

“When I got home our garage had blown over,” Isaacson-Whitehouse remembered. “It was on top of our neighbor’s house.”

“There were lots of hugs and tears,” LaRock said.

LaRock’s family lost power at their house for three or four days. Families and even grocery stores had to throw out their food, she said: “I remember eating a lot of doughnuts and prepackaged foods for a couple days.”

Cleaning up from the storm took weeks, both women said.

“That’s all you heard, chain saws everywhere,” Isaacson-Whitehouse said.

Anniversary of the ‘Big Wind’

Forty years ago today, the windstorm — sometimes nicknamed “The Big Wind” — laid waste to the Chippewa Valley between 9 and 10 p.m., downing trees and power lines and ripping up garages and homes.

Wind speeds were measured at 112 miles per hour at what was then the Eau Claire County Airport — before the measuring device blew away, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration storm data.

The storm was estimated to have caused $159 million in damage in Eau Claire, Dunn, Chippewa and Pierce counties in 1980, the costliest natural disaster in Wisconsin’s history at the time, the Leader-Telegram reported in 2005. A state of emergency went into effect for six days.

Menards owner John Menard told the Leader-Telegram in 2005 that 16 or 17 Mill Run subdivision homes were destroyed or would have to be destroyed, and several residents in Mill Run reported being trapped in their basements by collapsing debris.

Meteorologists from the National Weather Service Twin Cities said Tuesday they’d recently discovered and digitized new radar film from the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. In that new 1980 footage of the storm approaching Eau Claire, which the agency posted on YouTube Tuesday, the NWS Twin Cities called the storm “devastating.”

It swept over the Twin Cities’ southern suburbs before barrelling toward western Wisconsin, “where it intensified and produced severe damage,” according to the NWS. Four people died in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The windstorm isn’t considered a tornado, but a downburst or downdraft, involving straight-line winds instead of the funnel-shaped cloud that characterizes a tornado.

Though the storm system began in South Dakota, on the night of July 15, winds flipped a pontoon boat over on a woman in Prior Lake, Minn., drowning her, and nearly 100 mobile homes were destroyed or severely damaged in Lakeville, Minn., according to the NOAA. The storm caused another death and 27 injuries in Wisconsin, and another two people died about a week later from storm-related injuries, according to NOAA storm data.

The storm affected about 4,800 square miles of western Wisconsin between 8:30 and 11:30 p.m.

After seven days, 20,000 people still didn’t have power, according to NOAA.

The agency stated: “About 180 injuries, mostly from power-saw accidents, occurred in cleanup operations in the ensuing two weeks.”

The storm was memorialized by Eau Claire author Lukas Hoffland in his book, “Spearhead Echo: The Storm of 1980,” and by a 2015 WEAU-TV documentary. A group of residents in the 400 block of Lincoln Avenue in Eau Claire even started a tradition of gathering on July 15 every year to socialize and reminisce about the storm.

Isaacson-Whitehouse said she’ll never forget that night.

“It comes up in conversation every July,” she said.


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Wait 'til next year: Giving up on 2020, looking toward 2021

NEW YORK — This was supposed to be the year of the comeback for Boysie Dikobe, a South African dancer recovering from his second hip replacement and gearing up to get back on stage when the coronavirus hit.

Dikobe, a 29-year-old dancer who performs with a traveling drag ballet troupe that tours globally, says his first thought was: “2020 is canceled.”

It’s barely halfway over, and Dikobe is part of a global choir wishing for 2020 to end. No Olympics, no awards shows, no weddings, no summer camp, no graduations. Nothing to look forward to except a new Netflix show or your newfound love of regrowing scallions or baking bread.

Now it’s all about 2021 — the year when everything, and maybe nothing, happens.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought tectonic change to almost every part of life — how we live, where we live, where we work, what we do for work, what it means to be a kid, what family means, what is important. There was a months-long moment where the world was on pause, causing many to dig into existential questions: What is my purpose? Where do I belong?

That’s what Dikobe found himself doing as he quarantined in his small New York apartment contemplating his future — both personal and professional. Would he ever perform on stage again, or would he have to retire before an opportunity arrived? The more he considered it, the more he found himself thinking: “2020 is not canceled, actually. It’s an awakening.”

Leslie Dwight, a 23-year-old writer, wondered the same thing in a poem she wrote that was endlessly shared on social media about a week after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. “2020 isn’t canceled, but rather, the most important year of them all,” she wrote.

But why do we even say things like “2020 is canceled” and “New year, new me”?

Experts who study human behavior say the human desire to pin failures, hopes and dreams on a period of time like a calendar year has primitive roots connected to our attachment to routine.

“Because we missed our spring, summer isn’t really summer because it only comes after a complete spring,” says Stuart Patterson, chairperson of the Shimer Great Books School at North Central College. “The only opportunity to reset is next spring. Everything else we’re doing this year is going to be drained of significance because they don’t have the proper sequence.”

It’s like when Hamlet declares that “time is out of joint,” Patterson says.

How do we measure a year — a question about the passage of time that has a whole song devoted to it in the Broadway musical “Rent”? With seasons, milestones, rituals, events. So when a year is stripped of all of those moments, people feel lost and put hope in the future to manage expectations, psychologists and social scientists say.

Every calendar year brings a cycle of hope. January is when we’ll finally commit to our diet, quit smoking, become the person we always wanted to be. We believe in the power of change and promise ourselves: “This is our year,” as one reveler proclaimed just after the ball dropped in Times Square.

Some people admit defeat by January’s end, while other ambitions continue for a few more months. In April, many start focusing on summer. By November, most have thrown in the towel, vowing that the upcoming year is actually their year.

But that hope never fully dies out. It just gets recalibrated and refocused on a new target and soars again. “Hope,” the poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “is the thing with feathers.”

If not for hope, why would data show that most of the 6,253 respondents to a recent WeddingWire survey have postponed their planned 2020 nuptials to next year, but only 7% have canceled their wedding? Weddings are different from holidays in that, for many, it is an event that only happens once. Thus an even greater emphasis on making it special.

Like millions of other couples planning to get married this summer, Kerry Anne Perkins and Michael Gordon were devastated as March slouched into April. They realized they would have to cancel their dream wedding on Memorial Day weekend, which marked five years since the Philadelphia couple first met.

“Every day felt heavier and heavier and heavier,” Perkins recalls, saying she had frequent breakdowns and couldn’t bring herself to officially cancel the wedding.

They wound up having a microwedding June 6. As they did their first look, a massive Black Lives Matter demonstration arrived at Philadelphia’s Logan Square. Photos of the couple holding hands, fists raised, with thousands of people surrounding them went viral.

“We were really just a symbol of the things the world needs more of, especially in 2020,” Perkins says. “There’s a pandemic and all of the changes and the things that we’re hearing and seeing, people need hope. People need love. And people need unity.”

While Gordon says he knows they were lucky, he has advice for others planning milestones: Take a breath, think about what’s really important and find the special.

“In my mind, it has to get better,” Perkins says. “I’m hopeful. I think 2021 is going to be a year of rebirth.”

Deborah Serani, a psychologist in the New York City area, said hope has disappointed many this year but will help us endure the pandemic and thrive. “Hope,” she says, “requires us to look at the present situation and regard it for what it is, and plan for its betterment.”

No one knows what 2021 will bring. Nobody knows what the “new normal” will look like. Will there be wedding ceremonies featuring every person a couple has ever met, packed stadiums, concert venues with thousands of people crooning the same tune? Will the now-2021 Summer Olympics happen? Will awards shows be back? Will we even care?

There are no clear answers. But there is hope.


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Masks advised now in Eau Claire, but mandate could be in future

Eau Claire city leaders are advising people to wear face masks during the coronavirus pandemic but also are talking about the potential that could turn into a mandate.

The City Council voted 11-0 Tuesday afternoon to pass a resolution that encourages people to wear masks in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“Today this is not a mandate. This is strong encouragement,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said Tuesday. “If a mandate comes forward, I will be there and my family will be there to support it with our very best.”

A large part of the discussion during Tuesday’s council meeting centered on the potential that Eau Claire could eventually impose a requirement for wearing face masks, as Milwaukee and Dane County have done in recent days.

Council members noted they’d received hundreds of emails from constituents in the past couple of days after people learned a mask-encouraging resolution was under consideration.

“We have had so many people reach out to us in the last 36 hours asking us to go further than what this resolution does,” Councilman Andrew Werthmann said.

Of emails that Councilwoman Jill Christopherson received, she found that about 72% wanted the city to stand in favor of wearing masks, 10% wanted to leave it up to individual choice and 17% were emphatic that wearing masks did not appeal to them, she said.

Several people who do not want to wear face masks spoke Monday night to the council, including Eau Claire resident Amanda Clausen.

“It is not a matter of inconvenience but a matter of choice,” she said, adding that wearing a mask reduces air flow.

Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese spoke Tuesday afternoon to the council to express local public health experts’ stance on masks.

“Cloth masks are not perfect, they will not prevent people 100% from transmitting or getting COVID-19, but they do make a difference,” she said.

Giese noted that studies have shown the majority of moisture particles expelled by people, which are the method of transmission for the virus, are caught by cloth masks when worn properly.

With the amount of new cases reported daily rising in recent weeks in the area, she said there have been conversations about the potential for a mask mandate.

“I am hopeful we can keep the disease spread as slow as possible and mandates won’t be necessary,” she said, “but this is a clear strategy that many people see as the next step.”

If and when a mandate could come was a question Giese didn’t have the answer to Tuesday, noting that public health officials make decisions based on data, including new cases, that is updated daily.

There is a public health order currently in place for Eau Claire County, which includes a recommendation, but not requirement, to wear face masks. That order expires in one week and is expected to be followed by a renewed or revised order.

Two council members shared personal stories on Tuesday about how they have been affected by the coronavirus.

“This last week I lost a family member to COVID-19, an uncle who was in his 60s. He lived in Nevada,” Councilman Jeremy Gragert said.

Councilwoman Mai Xiong said she lost a friend to COVID-19 about six weeks ago.

“She was very young, she was very healthy,” Xiong said of the friend, who was in her 30s.

With family members who have respiratory issues, Xiong said she wears a face mask with their health in mind.

“It is our duty to protect one another,” she said.

Gragert said that if Tuesday’s resolution doesn’t encourage more people to wear masks in public, the result may be more coronavirus cases and the need for a mandate.

“This is really the most basic step we can take to encourage wearing masks,” he said. “There will be additional steps we’ll need to take if the community doesn’t respond appropriately.”

Other Business

Also during Tuesday’s meeting:

• A concept plan for Boyd Park, showing future improvements that would be funded by the Eastside Hill Neighborhood Association, was approved unanimously by the council.

• A resolution commending the work of city elections staff for holding a safe election in April amid the pandemic and encouraging similar measures for the Aug. 11 and Nov. 3 elections was approved in a 10-1 vote. Councilman David Klinkhammer cast the lone dissenting vote.

• In an 11-0 vote, the council rejected Shawn Lanier’s request for a license to keep chickens in the backyard of his residence at 1717 Necessity St. Lanier had been raising the chickens for about a year and neighbors recently complained about odor and rodents they attributed to the illegal chicken coop.