NewsLocal News


Does Lake Michigan protect Wisconsin shoreline cities from a major tornado?

Posted at 8:43 AM, May 15, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-15 10:56:40-04

MILWAUKEE -- Tornadoes come in all shapes, sizes, and strength. Some skip on the ground for just a few seconds and others stay on the ground for hours.

The tornado that hit Chetek, Wisconsin, on May 16, 2017 broke a state record. It shred a path 83 miles long and across four counties. One person died and 25 were hurt.

Tornadoes are ranked on a scale of EF0 to EF5 with EF5 being the strongest. If you look at a map of the EF3 or greater tornadoes that have hit Wisconsin since 1950, you'll see a higher concentration of twisters inland, away from Lake Michigan.

The last EF3 or greater tornado to reach the shoreline was the Howards Grove tornado of 1974 and before that, you have to go back to 1964 when an F4 tornado struck Port Washington.

The 1974 Howards Grove tornado was similar to the more recent Chetek tornado. It tore a path 59 miles long and killed a four-month-old.

Richard Stoelb of Howards Grove was spending an afternoon with family when that violent tornado touched down.

"Everybody goes, 'Where's dad?' Father-in-law. He's up there, he's watching the tornado on the north end of the farm. So I went up there and he said, 'It's right here!' I looked and right to the north, there is woods, and to the right of the woods you could see it moving," Stoelb said. 

Stoelb recalls one other important factor that day: there was no lake breeze.

"You talk to people, what I call old-timers. They'll tell you if you ever get down to the lake and it's still warm there's something wrong," he said. 

Typically you need optimal warm and humid conditions for strong tornadoes to occur. Many times a cooling lake breeze can hamper conditions just enough to spare the lakeside communities.

But if there's a strong southwest wind there's no guarantee.