I am a trained spotter for the National Weather Service, and I have been interested in severe weather for a number of years. I live northeast of Stoughton on Red Oak Drive, a small subdivision off of Skaalen Road (right under the "S" in Skaalen on the first map on your website's map page). I plan to begin chasing storms and tornadoes within the next two years, but I never plan on getting as close to a tornado as one missed my house by on Thursday, August 18, 2005-barely a block.
I was following the weather that day, as the severe thunderstorm potential plays a significant role in my daily plans during the spring and summer. Thursday was a sort of "what-if" day in the opinion of most meteorologists-severe thunderstorms and isolated tornadoes were expected to be possible, but not likely. Friday, the 19th was expected to be the big show. I was watching radar via the internet as the tornado watch was issued and the first tornadoes developed near Viola. It was around the time of the reports of major damage in Viola that I started thinking Thursday could be the day everyone remembers. I was watching for new development south of the original Viola storm, as lines of "supercells" (rotating, often tornado-spawning thunderstorms) often initiate from north to south, with the southernmost storm eventually becoming dominant. Around 5:00 the first hints of a storm began to appear in southern Iowa County. I could see it was on a track for the Stoughton area, but had no idea what was coming in just under two hours.
I was surprised by the first tornado warning for Dane County as that storm moved in from Iowa Co., because it appeared disorganized on radar and had none of the "tornadic" signatures we normally look for. I was equally surprised by the Stoughton sirens going off about 6:15. The storm still appeared disorganized and I was anticipating at most a brief, small tornado from it. Outside, I observed a stout thunderstorm updraft cloud off to the west, with small, low clouds drifting quickly overhead in all directions. It was at this point that I started to get apprehensive-the extremely rapid, divergent cloud motion indicated very strong low-level shear, winds in the atmosphere moving in different directions at different levels-aids in the formation of supercells and tornadoes.
I came back indoors near 6:20 PM and immediately recieved an inquiry via AOL Instant Messenger from a friend of mine who interns at the National Weather Service in Sullivan. "How far north of U.S. 51 do you live?" "About two miles", I replied. His reply: "GET UNDERGROUND NOW!"
He proceeded to explain the particulars to me-he suspected a strong tornado was developing near Fitchburg and making a right turn toward my area. He estimated it was still about 20 minutes away, so I continued to monitor the radar and in the 6:32 PM scan the "disorganized" storm revealed itself as a perfect supercell-complete with classic hook echo, inflow notch, and strong velocity couplet (the "red-on-green" signature). My mother was watching Gary Cannalte of Channel 3 on TV in the living room, and I suggested that she go watch in the basement. I then picked up our snoozing cat, Katrina (named long before the hurricane disaster) and carried her down there, and jogged back up the stairs, video camera in hand. It was at precisely this moment that the power blinked a few times, then shut off. I vacillated a few moments before deciding, OK, if there was a tornado in the neighborhood, I was going to see it! This has been my dream for years.
Exiting the front door, the first thing I saw when I looked up at the sky were several large pieces of debris sailing through the air, with some of it landing in the yard. The clouds were churning back and forth in chaotic motion, but in just a few seconds that chaos changed to clear, unmistakeable, violent rotation. I never ran so fast in my life, back inside and down the basement stairs. My mother and I stood in the bathroom door, ready to dive in and duck and cover if the house started coming apart, while I videotaped through the windows. The wind outside quickly increased to an estimated 70 mph (just below hurricane force), whipping the trees back and forth like I had never seen. Leaves, twigs and shingles blew past the windows. These winds lasted a good five minutes before gradually subsiding, and a horizontally blowing, atomized rain began to fall. This would be the rain that shows up as the "hook" behind the tornado on radar. Many tornadic supercells produce hail in this region as well, but this one was not, at least at that point.
After the rain let up I went back outside and crossed the debris-strewn driveway and discovered several downed trees partially blocking the street. I circumnavigated these and crossed Skaalen Road to videotape the backside of the receding supercell, spectacular dark clouds obviously sculpted by the rotation within, and a rainbow superimposed in the foreground. It was the most beautiful storm I had ever seen, and at this point I was unaware of the horrific damage just 2 blocks to my north, or that the father of one of my high school classmates, Allan Orlofske, was dead.
When my father arrived home from work, he had to chainsaw his way through the aformentioned trees to get his car into the driveway. It wasn't until then that my mother and I found out exactly how bad this tornado had been, because my father had driven past several destroyed houses on his way in. Power was still off, so we went to McDonalds for a late dinner (around 10 PM) where we found many other people who had been through or near the tornado, some with cameras containing vivid pictures of the destruction.
We got home around 11 PM, and were preparing for bed when a Verona firefighter knocked on our door and said we had to evacuate. Our general response was, "what?". Our house was undamaged, and indeed the firefighter returned a few minutes later and said we were OK to stay. However, my father left the house at around 3 AM for ice and water, but when he returned a new shift of Dane County Sherrif's personnel had taken over that would not let him back into the neighborhood. He ended up having to spend the night in his car, before procuring wristbands at City Hall the next morning. We spent most of Friday and Saturday sawing up downed trees in one of our neighbor's yards, then raking up the small debris strewn around our yard. When power (and thus water pumps) were restored mid-afternoon Friday, we had what we considered "the best showers of our lives".