West Bend, WI tornado April 1981


Food, Clothing pour in as victims dig out from tornado's fury

West Bend - A bleak wind still blew here Saturday afternoon as families, officials and a battalion of volunteers tried to bandage the deep gash torn by a killer tornado.

The twister, striking Saturday just after midnight and before authorities could sound an alarm, killed three people in West Bend and injured 51. The most seriously hurt were improving late Saturday, and some of the 12 who had been admitted to the hospital were expected to return home by Monday.

The initial damage assessment by the Red Cross set the number of structures destroyed or damaged at 139. The agency counted 29 homes destroyed, 22 more with major damage that might be reclaimable and 88 that suffered less serious damage.

Scores of families were left homeless. But by Saturday afternoon a virtual mountain of food, clothing and other necessities had been gathered for them at the Red Cross temporary shelter, where hundreds of offers of help had been received.

The sky darkened around midday Saturday, stirring fears that another storm would drench the shells of homes ripped open to the rain. Wads of insulating fabric and other debris tumbled with Saturday's strong wind.

So the work proceeded with urgency. Plastic was stapled up, and workers sawed boards to nail over windows. Families sifted anxiously through wreckage. Pickup trucks were loaded, driven off through police lines and returned for reloading.

Damage estimates for West Bend ranged from $6 million to $15 million. The Washington County Sheriff's Department estimated damage to an unincorporated subdivision where 10 homes were damaged at as much as $1 million. Other isolated damage was reported elsewhere in the county.

Gov. Dreyfus declared a state of emergency Saturday for Washington County, along with Calumet, Columbia, Dane, Dodge and Fond du Lac Counties, where other storm damage occurred.

In some places, the West Bend cleanup went quickly. but where the wreckage was worst, it seemed impossible to even begin. Everywhere one looked, the ground was littered with every imaginable artifact of American life - barbeque grills, little girls' shoes, kitchen utensils, a copy of "The Little Engine That Could." Overhead, a TV antenna twisted into junk sculpture clattered in the wind.

Houses with the worst damage soon had big chalk X's drawn on whatever was left to mark them as uninhabitable. One duplex resident also chalked a warning: "Dog in Basement."

Nick Goschey stood in his driveway on Green Tree Rd., poking at a pile of lumber that had been part of the front of his house. He was smoking his pipe and taking all this as well as he could. Goschey is 84.

"I'm going for 100," Goschey said with a smile.

Signpost was bent

In the indoor rubble, an old upright piano stood tall and untouched, and a picture of a benedictory Jesus could be seen.

"Where are my mailboxes?" Goschey wanted to know. In his front yard, a metal signpost ("Caution Children at Play") still fixed in its base had been bent perfectly parallel to the ground. The garage door lay on the lawn, curled like a taco.

Also on the front lawn was a station wagon so badly misshapen that it seemed to have been partially melted down. The doors on one side were stuffed with grass and dirt that had been chewed up as the car rolled over. The auto had been parked around the corner on another street.

The work continued. Vehicles that the storm had tossed into ditches were hauled up by tractor. Utility crews were everywhere, restoring power and gas lines and digging for new poles. A telephone company car patroled the disaster area while an official made notes.

Dramatic problem

The most dramatic problem faced by Wisconsin Electric Power Co. was removing a 30-foot section of a barn from a 138,000-volt transmission line 70 feet off the ground.

The utility reported that by Saturday night power had been restored to just about all of the 1,000 West Bend residences that were blacked out overnight.

Surprisingly, the barn side dangling from a main transmission was not the cause of any of the power failures, the spokesman said. A backup line was used while workers removed the section of barn from around the transmission line.

Still, it presented workers with a ticklish problem of de-energizing the line and taking it down to remove the debris that had wrapped around the line.

No National Guard yet

As of Saturday afternoon, authorities thought they probably would not call in the National Guard. Under mutual aid agreements, Washington County was getting a lot of help from other counties. Joseph LaFleur, administrator of the State Division of Emergency Government, sent 12 to 14 members of the State Patrol to the West Bend area.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department sent 10 two-deputy squads to aid in supervising the cleanup and manning roadblocks around the damage area.

[West Bend police arrested four people Saturday afternoon on a charge of obstruction an officer in the damage area. Police said the four were asked repeatedly to leave the area but refused.]

Ozaukee, Sheboygan, Walworth, Racine and Kenosha Counties also had sent deputies. Waukesha County reportedly was preparing to do so. Fire equipment arrived from neighboring communities, as did off-duty officers and firefighters.

A theme of help

Help was the theme of the hour. At the emergency Red Cross station at Silverbrook Middle School, lists of volunteers grew and multiplied. The clothing bank was moved to a nearby Lutheran church, but it soon outgrew that location as well.

"We got that church so full we had to ask people to hold off," said volunteer Estelle Hilgendorf. Although about 35 families had come to the emergency station early Saturday for tearful reunions with relatives and for pizza donated by a nearby pizzeria, volunteers expected fewer families Saturday night.

"I think they'll be back to eat when it gets dark," said Jackie Wicklund, executive director of the West Bend Red Cross. "But after that I truly think most of them will be going with friends or family. I saw one woman in tears that these friends of hers would think of staying anywhere but with her."

Wicklund said she hoped volunteers still would be available "in a week or so" when the victims' plight might be less dramatic but equally severe.

The message board was festooned with notes such as "Bob and Sue, we can put you up." A real estate firm offered five empty houses, and a campground offered five cabins plus food. And some victims were preparing to move into motel accommodations at the expense of their insurance companies.

"It looks like there's a lot of insurance," said Peter Friedland, a Milwaukee Red Cross professional helping with damage assessment.

More neighbors could be seen pitching in at the badly battered farm of Clarence Van Beek, just across Highway 45 from the shattered entrance of the Moraine Park Technical Institute campus.

The Van Beek barn had collapsed, and the roof of the 19th century farmhouse was gone. The machine sheds had been yanked apart and strewn across the soft sod of the hayfields. Fences were down, and everything seemed mired in the mud. Cows were milling about, mooing piteously to be milked.

But neighbors helped pen the cows. Others brought in a tractor, a generator and makeshift electrical wiring to get the milking machines going.

Another kind of friend was Art Daehn of Menomonee Falls, whose phone rang at 1:30 Saturday morning. It was a firend from West Bend calling to say his house had been leveled. Daehn got up and headed for West Bend. Around noon, he went to the Red Cross center to scare up some sandwiches for his friend's family.

"They lost everything," Daehn said wearily, "right down to nothing."

The Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee, WI 5 April, 1981

Sheboygan Falls, Wis. - A $1,000 US Savings Bond from the home of one of the three persons killed by the tornado that hit West Bend was found Saturday in the yard of a home in Sheboygan Falls, about 30 miles to the northeast.

The bond belonged to Eugene J. and Pearl Dunn of West Bend, whose home was in the tornado's path. Dunn's body was found in a field near his home. His wife, who was injured when the twister hit, was in fair condition at St. Joseph's Community Hospital of West Bend.

Michael Lorge, 18, of Sheboygan Falls, said his mother had noticed the official-looking piece of paper outside their home, and he had gone to check it out.

"I could hardly believe it when I saw what it was," he said. "I told my mom, and she didn't believe me at first."

The Lorge family notified police, and arrangements were made for relatives of the Dunns to pick up the bond.

The Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee, WI 5 April, 1981
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------WEST BEND PUTTING PIECES TOGETHER

West Bend - For hundreds of residents and volunteers here, Sunday was not a day of rest but a day to confront a mountainous task.

Many of those worst hit by the tornado early Saturday morning were still dazed Sunday as they returned to the site and began clearing the morass of debris. Some early estimates put the damage as high as $12 million.

"I guess the realization hasn't quite hit yet," said Betty Lehn of Green Tree Rd. as she sat with a Red Cross volunteer, talking about available apartments.

Helen Urbaniak, whose home on Roosevelt Dr. had all but vanished, found a jacket at an emergency clothing bank so she and her husband, Gene, would not have to go on sharing his blaze-orange hunting jacket.

When she was asked to recite once more the names and ages of her children - Paul, 13, Steve, 11, Karla, 7 - Mrs. Urbaniak suddenly remembered that her daughter's birthday was this month. She began to cry.

Yet even those most thoroughly wiped out had to shake their heads in wonder and call themselves lucky.

And at churches throughout the area, worshipers remembered the three who died in the wreckage: Scott Schlefke, 10; Eugene Dunn, 55; and Ida Nolan, 83.

At St. Joseph's Community Hospital, a stream of visitors arrived for the remaining storm victims. Three of the 12 victims originally admitted had been released by Sunday night. The three most seriously injured had improved to fair condition, the other six remaining were listed in good condition.

Up on the damage site, even in the midst of the devastation, a glimmer of humor had returned. Jim Brooks of Roosevelt Dr. had his crushed Pinto in the front yard with the inevitable sign: "Who do you know wants to buy a car?"

It was a wry message that reappeared elsewhere in the stricken area.

Brooks got a $100 offer for the Pinto engine while he stood on the concrete patio that used to be his garage. He had reduced a 20-foot pile of rubble with the help of a chain saw and Boy Schouts from two West Bend troops.

Brooks talked of the storm, of the sound and the flying glass. He told of yelling to his children to lie on the floor and of running outdoors to find the second story of the house across the street lying in the street.

"That was the Castillos' house," Brooks said. "We pulled their six kids out of there. He [Pedro Castillo] was in there pulling them out. He didn't realize until afterwards how badly he was hurt."

Castillo had suffered a serious eye injury.

Injured cleaning up

A Milwaukee woman, Lourdes Castillo, reportedly a niece of Pedro, suffered a back injury while hilping clean up. Taken initially to St. Jospeh's in West Bend, she was transferred to St. Luke's Hospital in Milwaukee, where she was listed in satisfactory condition Monday with two fractures to spinal vertebrae.

Volunteers at Trinity Lutheran Church sorted thousands of pieces of donated clothing. the clothing - all kids and in all sizes - came from as far as Kenosha and Sheboygan. It was stacked high in a half-dozen large rooms and hung from a score of racks donated by local stores. The church had become, in fact, one of the larger department stores in town.

School a meal site

The Red Cross emergency shelter at Silverbrook Middle School was a meal site for the victims and a general gathering point for volunteers and the community at large.

Lehn sat at a table talking about apartments with a Red Cross volunteer. She said the owner of her duplex might rebuild it, but she planned to move permanently.

"My daughter won't go back," Lehn said. "And my granddaughter won't go near the place. When the thing hit, I grabbed my granddaughter on the floor and lay down over her."

The granddaughter, Nicole Shong, 4 summed up the damage: "Grandma's house is all broke."

Some improvement seen

Some of the less-damaged homes along the mile-long strip where the tornado touched down were beginning to look normal Sunday. Structural wounds had been shorn up. Debris had been carried in piles to the edge of the street.

City Administrator John Meyer urged residents and workers to push everything to the curb for the city trucks, which were circling continuously. Meyer especially stressed the need to remove perishable food from the area.

Storm victims were asked to bring reports of their losses - with their names, addresses, details of damage and duplicate copies - to the Washington County Courthouse on Highway 33 in West Bend as soon as possible.

Mayor John Pick, who estimated damage at between $10 million and $12 million, said these reports were needed for the state's application for emergency aid. On Saturday, Gov. Dreyfus declared an emergency in Washington County.

Young America cleaning up

Cleanup was well underway in Young America, an unincorporated community in the Town of Barton, on the west bank of the Milwaukee River north of West Bend, which got its name from pioneers six generations ago.

Walter Faber, 60, a Young America resident since 1943, pointed out the landmark Suckow Mill - built in 1857. The historic mill survivied unscathed.

Some of the mill's contemporary buildings were not as fortunate, but most of the 19th century structures had fared as well as or better than the newer ones. Faber's own 6-year-old house at 7167 River Rd. was a total loss.

"Insurance already totaled it," Faber said.

But he seemed more aggrieved at the loss of several white spruce that had snapped off at the trunk.

Down at the riverside., old oaks had been wrenced from the soft bank. Their earthen bases stood straight up, taller than a man.

The Milwaukee Journal, Milwaukee, WI April 6, 1981


I lived on Roosevelt Dr at the time

I was 8 years old and lived at 1505 Roosevelt Dr N when the tornado hit. THankfully our house was still standing but the houses directly across the street were gone except the basement, my swingset was on the roof of our garage, various pieces of 2x4's were sticking out of our siding like darts in a dartboard and the trees were full of pink insulation. My parents were driving home from a "date night" at the time, saw our house was standing so they stopped to help pull neighbors out of the debris whose homes were destroyed. I remember my bedroom window blowing out when a piece of 2x4 came flying through it, down the hallway and hit our console TV in the living room.

I was in this tornado; I was

I was in this tornado; I was 11 at the time. We lived on Roosevelt Drive next to Scott Schlefke (the 10 year old fatality). We lost everything and sustained injuries; but we survived. I remember bits and pieces of images and noise in brief moments of consciousness. We rebuilt on the same lot. The outpouring of aid from friends, families, churches, and total strangers was amazing. I wish that the news would mention it's occurrence on the anniversary of this fluke anti-cyclonic tornado.

April 4, 1981 Tornado

I lived on Sunset Ridge. I woke up just before the tornado went through, all of a sudden my bedroom windows started bowing in. I dove back into my bed. Thankfully the windows did not break. I turned on my bedroom light and my golden lab had all the newspaper shredded on the floor. I then remember talking with my dad, and he'd said he seen the power line transformer arching over by the old Robo car wash.

I too remember this.

I as 11 years old and recall some of the details. While I was not directly impacted by this horrific event, my father had a close friend that was. I recall going to my fathers friends home a couple of days later and having the "the path" of the tornado pointed out. It seemed to be almost selective about where it tounched down. That was just over 21 years ago. It was one of this things that has stuck me with me all my life.


I was in my bed and it sounded like a train when my sister came in we met in the middle of our room the wind was loud our room was in the basement we had to push through thr door and it was raining in the living room my mom was on the steps coming down stairs with my brother in awe of what happened. we headed up stairs to look fpor our baby sister she was in the closet she was sleeping in my moms bed her room and another bedroom were totally gone. we had 1 more sister down the road at the Brooks house we yelled for her we found her under the rubble we were all togcethcber standing the rain ca car stopped and pcked us up we went to the hospital we had minimal injuries stiches and tetnashots
I was on the news in my bathrobe

West Bend Tornado 4/1981

My parents & brother were living at 1403 Patricia Drive, West Bend. When the tornado hit my mother was screaming as the glass was breaking. It was flying from the broken window in her bedroom on the east side of the house. It covered her. My brother was on the West side of the house. He woke to hearing her screaming. He decided "the old lady is just having a bad dream." He then fell right to sleep! I have a couple of pictures up on my facebook page. Sharon Marino Casey

I remembered this tornado

It hit my parents home on: Patricia Drive and left a rocking chair standing in the front lawn, my father got hit by a board and told us that the tornado sounded like a fright train, and my mothers mirror from her dresser was on top of her legs while she was in bed. If I were there I would of been dead but i had to babysit my nephew who is alot older today! THANK GOD I wasn't home, my little sister was there also but survived like my parents we were considered blessed!