Chetek Tornado: Sheriff Details 'Total' Devastation, Recovery

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Premiere Date: 
May 19, 2017

Chetek Tornado: Sheriff Details 'Total' Devastation, Recovery

Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald describes the EF2 tornado that ripped through Chetek and Barron County on May 16, killing one and injuring 25 others. "It's nothing that I've ever seen in my 20 years in law enforcement," he says. “Where there's supposed to be houses and trailers, there's absolutely nothing.” It damaged 31 properties in 10 miles. Volunteers are aiding the recovery effort.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

And dozens of people are still recovering tonight after a deadly EF2 tornado ripped through a mobile home park in northwest Wisconsin on Tuesday. The tornado reached wind speeds of 130 miles per hour. It touched down just after 5:30 Tuesday night in the small city of Chetek in Barron County. One of the hardest hit areas was the Prairie Lake Estates Mobile Home Park in Chetek. Several mobile homes were destroyed and a local resident, 46-year-old Eric Gavin, was killed during the storm. At least 25 others were injured. And now to Barron County and a "Look Ahead" into the weekend clean-up there. For that, we have Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald on the telephone. Thanks for being here.

Chris Fitzgerald:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

In the aftermath of the tornado, what is going on there right now?

Chris Fitzgerald:

Yeah. Just an update. We just got our property and we have 231 properties in Barron County damaged in this storm. It stretches about a ten-mile stretch here. We're in the recovery clean-up effort as we speak today. We have over -- as of now, over 300 or 400 volunteers on our different sites, cleaning up, helping people clean debris up. We bussed them in from our volunteer resource center. We're in the clean-up mode right now helping people try to get back going on with their lives.

Frederica Freyberg:

Wow. So taking you back to Tuesday evening, when you and other law enforcement first arrived, what was that like and what was the first order of business?

Chris Fitzgerald:

The first order of business, I arrived on scene, I was actually on duty and arrived on scene during the incident. Our first was rescue. We had several people trapped in trailers, walls on top of them, total devastation. It's a miracle -- it's sad that one person died, but it's a miracle that only one person died and we had 25 injured. It's a miracle because it's total devastation up here, not only in the trailer court, but across Barron County.

Frederica Freyberg:

And so do you know what the status is of those who were injured? I mean, are there people still in the hospital?

Chris Fitzgerald:

I’ve got conflicting reports this morning that a person in the hospital might have been released. But there's only one or two left in the hospital as far as I know or zero. It's somewhere between zero and two people left in the hospital. Again, it's a miracle. It's just a miracle. It's nothing like I’ve ever seen in my 20 years of law enforcement. It's total devastation. Where there's supposed to be houses and trailers, there's absolutely nothing.

Frederica Freyberg:

Now, three days later, how are people coping?

Chris Fitzgerald:

You know, we're starting to see some of the effects of the trauma that it's created. First responders and everything, people have been working 24/7 since the incident and trying to get people help. But there's a lot of hope. There's a lot of people giving us food, water, donations and monetary and all that stuff is building hope and rebuilding dreams. And that's what we're running on right now. We're running on fumes, but we're running on hope, and it's been awesome. It's unbelievable. And we're going to put people's lives back together even starting right now in the room right next to me.

Frederica Freyberg:

All right. Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald, thanks very much and good luck.

Chris Fitzgerald:

Thank you.

Frederica Freyberg:

People interested in volunteering this weekend in Barron County should report to the volunteer reception center Saturday and Sunday between the hours of 8:00 in the morning and 5:00 p.m. The center is set up at St. Peter's Catholic Church at the intersection Highways 8 and 53 in Cameron.

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