Oak Creek and South Milwaukee, WI tornado, Jul 1981

Storm batters Oak Creek, damages 15 homes

Marilyn Gardner
Journal Staff

Ervin and Lillian McClay of 6524 S. Crane Dr., Oak Creek, were on their way home Monday afternoon after attending to some business in Cudahy when they saw the trouble.

"We were about a mile away when I saw the tornado," Ervin McClay said. "I knew right away what it was - I used to live in Minnesota and we had lots of them."

They arrived home to find the roof of their garage caved in, all of the garage windows blown out and many trees in their yard uprooted, he said.

The McClay's home was one of about 15 in Oak Creek that were damaged when the tornado touched down there Monday at about 4 p.m.

Lawrence Prochnow, captain and director of emergency government for the Oak Creek Police Department said:

"We spent four or five hours out there last night. There's not much you can do at the time. You just try to help the people."

The home of Thomas and Karen Wuethrich, 6544 S. Crane Drive, also was damaged. Roof shingles and siding on the house were blown off.

Tom Zajdel, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service at Mitchell Field, said, "We had a squall line develop around the Fond du Lac County area early in the afternoon. It moved into the Milwaukee area between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. One of the thunderstorms in the line intensified very rapidly over the Oak Creek area."

Elroy Jagler, meteorologist in charge, went to th area. Zajdel said, "and from what he saw and from the people he talked to he's sure it was a tornado."

Ervin McClay's mother, Georgia, 85, lives with them and was home at the time. "She was really shook up," he said. "But it was very quick. It was over just like that."

His sister-in-law, Janet McClay, lives nearby at 6514 S. Crane Dr. When the tornado touched down, she went to Ervin's house. "I ran right over," she said. "I wanted to be with her."

The tornado also caused a lot of damage to her home and yard, Janet McClay said. "I lost most of my trees. We had a yard like a park. A great big elm came down and at least five more were rooted up, broken and blown down. The yard's full of wood."

Wall pushed in

The south wall of her garage was pushed in, she said, and the roof was damaged.

At both homes, insurance company workers put heavy plastic over the damaged roofs. Both families were able to stay in their homes Monday night.

McClay said one of the trees that damaged Ervin McClay's garage was a silver maple that he had given to a heighborhood boy as a seedling.

The boy, Kurt Bielski, now 19, planted the seedling when he was 5 or 6, his mother, Lorraine Bielski, said Tuesday. "All the kids went over to the McClay home. He's like a neighborly grandpa type."

Kurt planted the tiny tree in their back yard, "right next to the vent from my dryer," she said. "It had constant warm breezes winter and summer. You need it. It grew very fast in that tropical climate."

About three years later, Kurt transplanted the tree into the yard and it grew to reach the second story of their home.

The tornado "split the tree right down the middle and twisted the top right off," Kurt's mother said. "It threw it right back into Erv's garage."

A close call for 2

A 31-year-old Fond du Lac County man and his year-old daughter narrowly escaped injury Monday when a tornado wrapped a windmill around a vacant house, cut power lines, and blew the barn over on the property.

Charles Budnick, who lives west of Oakfield, was in his trailer home behind the house and had just finished doing the dishes when he heard a loud sound.

"I ran to the back of the trailer, grabbed my baby, ran outside and was going to the milk house [in the barn], but then I looked up and saw this funnel cloud bouncing up and down on top of the barn," he said.

"I then ran across the street and lay in the ditch covering my baby."

Almost everything in the barn, incluing heavy machinery and an antique truck, was damaged by the tornado. Shingles were blown off the house, which Budnick was repairing, a garage was moved off its foundation and the roof of the trailer home was damaged. But Budnick and his daughter were not injured.

Another tornado touched down in Dodge County in a field north of Highway 49, said Jerry Witte, emergency government director. And two other funnel clouds were seen over Horicon Marsh and south of Waupun where Highways 151 and 26 meet. No damage was reported.

The Milwaukee Journal, 21 Jul 1981
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15 houses damaged in tornado

By Catherine Meister

Fifteen homes were damaged by a tornado in Oak Creek Monday afternoon as a line of thunderstorms whipped southern and central Wisconsin.

There were weather problems in several counties, including:

-The death of a 22-year-old woman in a motorcycle accident in dense fog in Manitowoc County.
-The rescue of a Port Washington woman by boat from her flooded house.
-Street and basement flooding in Milwaukee and other southeastern communities.
-Minor injuries to two passengers on a Northwest Airlines plane that was approaching Mitchell Field when it hit "clear air turbulence" that jostled passengers about 6 p.m. The injured people were treated at Trinity Memorial Hospital.

The Oak Creek tornado was one of seven reported in the state. It touched down about 3:30 p.m. in the 6500 block of S. Crane Dr. and moved to Oak and 17th Sts. in South Milwaukee, the National Weather Service said.

Most of the damage occurred on Crane Dr. and in the 2200 block of E. Poplar Ave.

The Oak Creek Fire Department was checking houses for damage and possible natural gas leaks.

Part of the roof of the house of Ervin and Lillian McClay, 6524 S. Crane Dr., was torn off, Mrs. McClay said. She said the entire roof of their attached garage was ripped off leaving debris scattered throughout their yard.

"We were just coming home from Cudahy on College Ave. when we saw a big cloud that looked like a funnel," she said.

"That cloud came down real fas and then went up again very quickly," Mrs. McClay said.

Other damage included siding and shingles that were ripped off, windows that were blown out and uprooted trees.

The two houses adjacent to the McClay house also were damaged. The south wall of Janet McClay's garage, 6544 S. Crane Dr., was lifted 4 inches off its foundation. Mrs. McClay is Ervin McClay's sister-in-law.

The west side of the roof on the Thomas and Karen Wuethrich home was lifted several inches. The house's siding also was damaged.

The tornado also damaged the Tews Lime & Cement Co. warehouse at 1005 Columbia Ave., South Milwaukee. Part of the building's roof caved in. An employe who was in the warehouse at the time was not injured. No damage estimates were available.

Three tornadoes were sighted in Fond du Lac County, including one that flattened a barn. In that incident, a 31-year-old man and his 1-year-old daughter narrowly escaped injury.

Charles Budnick was in his mobile home with his daughter, Chloe, when he heard high winds about 1:15 p.m. His farm is located about four miles west of the Town of Oakfield.

"I had just finished doing the dishes when all of a sudden I heard a loud sound of wind. I ran to the back of my trailer, grabbed my baby, ran outside and was going to run to the milk house (in the barn) but then I looked up and saw this funnel cloud bouncing up and down on top of the barn.

"I then ran across the street and laid in the ditch covering my baby. It (the funnel) was long and narrow. ...God, it was spooky," Budnick said.

The barn was flattened, Budnick said, and the roof of his van was damaged.

At 1:15 p.m., a tornado also touched down in a field just north of Highway 49 in Dodge County, sheriff's deputies said. No damage was reported.

Other tornadoes were sighted at 1:25 p.m. over the Horicon Marsh in the Town of Burnett and in the Town of Chester at Highways 151 and 26, officials said.

Thunderstorms accompanied by strong winds his southeastern Wisconsin durig rush-hour traffic, causing many motorists to pull over and wait for the rain to subside. Street and basement flooding was reported on the South Side of Milwaukee and in some other communities in southeastern Wisconsin.

One woman in Port Washington had to be rescued from her house by boat, according to Neil Noesen, chef of the Port Washington Fire Department.

Noesen said the woman became worried Monday afternoon when high waters in teh 1100 block of Lincoln Ave. surrounded her house and flooded her basement.

"The only way to get her out was by rowboat," the chief said.

The unidentified woman was not injured.

Lightning struck the Thomas Edson house at 1122 Lincoln Ave. and "knocked a hole in the basement wall," Noesen said.

"Water was just pouring through the hole into the basement, and Tom (Edson) was picking things up, moving furniture off the floor," Noesen said.

That house was one of several in Port Washington with flooded basements, he said.

Electric power also was out at many houses on the city's North Side. Police said a transformer was struck by lightning and exploded.

The cause of Monday's turbulent weather was a line of thunderstorms that developed in a warm and humid air ahead of a cold front that was moving into the state, according to the National Weather Service.

The weather-related traffic fatality in Manitowoc County preceded the storms.

Gina Herzog, 22, of Newton, died early Monday in a collision between two motorcycles. She was a passenger on one of the motorcycles.

The accident occurred about 12:15 a.m. on Highway 149 in the Town of Schlieswig. The cycles apparently were travelling together. Three other people were injured.

Fog also delayed and led to the cancellation of several flights out of Milwaukee, said Tim Shannon, an operations assistant at Mitchell Field. Planes landing in Milwaukee were rerouted to other airports from about 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., he said.

Tuesday will be mostly sunny. High temperatures will be in the low to middle 70s inland and in the middle 60s near Lake Michigan. Lows will be around 60.

The Milwaukee Sentinel, 21 Jul 1981