Rusk County tornado impact
Some say when a tornado passes through, it sounds like a freight train.
“I was in the Navy,” says John Pollak of Conrath. “It sounded like an F4 taking off the flight deck.”
For Pollak, who lost his home to the EF3 tornado on May 16, 2017, the sound may have been different. But the damage? All the same.
One year later, the imprint of the EF3 tornado is still clearly visible throughout Rusk County, and for families like the Pollaks, it's a grim reminder of what it took away.
“May 16th 6:26. That was the time that it hit us, that we were in the basement,” says Eileen Pollak, explaining the night the tornado came through.
When John, Eileen and their dog managed to crawl out from under all of the debris, they discovered devastation.
“They couldn't even tell there was a house here, well there wasn't a house here anymore,” says John.
The two discovered devastation, losing sentimental items dear to them, and the place they once called home.
“This wicker chair was my great grandma's, went to my grandma, to my mom, to me, and then passed down to my daughter,” says Eileen.
“It's not the same,” says John. “We don't try to come out here too much anymore, it's just not home anymore.”
Today, the Pollaks have purchased a new property with help from a benefit-but the two look back one year ago to when the community rallied around them.
“Even the high school canceled their trip and came and helped us, the Ladysmith Senior high school class,” says Eileen. “They spend the day with us helping us clean up and stuff so, yeah I would say our community, Rusk County is working together.”
Efforts like the ones shown on the Pollak’s property have been a familiar sight throughout the county.
Rusk County Sheriff, Jeff Wallace says the county faced around $1.9 million in damage.
“It’s sad to still see the loss that some of these people had,” says Sheriff Wallace. “The county just pulls together and is there for each other. It’s neighbors helping neighbors, trying to get things back to where they were.”
Getting back to where they were, something that wasn't an option for the Zunker family, as the tornado damaged or caused complete destruction to 10 different buildings on their family farm.
“I looked out the door and I said, ‘man we are going to need a lot of help,’ and within a half an hour we were talking to our construction agency.
Local churches, students and volunteers also lent a hand in picking up debris.
“We have a long free stall,” says Valerie Zunker. “Part of that was completely destroyed, we had this for a new shop here and there was a big hole put in that, the roof of that.”
For the two families- whether it be relocating or rebuilding, one year later they see the tornado in a new light.
“You look at what you have now and we think well, maybe it was a blessing,” says Zunker.
“God works in mysterious ways,” says John.
And just the way the train passes by, the families move forward, leaving the rest behind.
“All you can do is keep, just keep picking the pieces up and keep going,” says Eileen.
Barron County Remembrance Event
Friends and family in Barron County also joined together Wednesday night for a remembrance ceremony in Chetek.
According to the Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald, 100 percent of families displaced in by last year's tornado are back in permanent housing! The sheriff, speaking at the event, said what better way to remember the tornado anniversary than by being together as a community
Hundreds showed up to the Chetek Airport Park where a free meal was provided to everyone who was affected or had a hand in recovery efforts.
The tornado damaged more than 150 Barron County properties and caused more than $10 million in damage. A moment of silence was also held at Wednesday night’s event for the two victims of last year's tornado, one person who was killed during the storm and one during cleanup.
But like the sheriff said, while the anniversary is marking a tragedy, he wouldn't have wanted to go through an event like this with anyone else as community members showed their strength.
“Everybody is in their long-term recovery efforts, on with their lives, their vehicles are all running,” said Fitzgerald. “The long-term recovery committee, this is our last event and we'll be closing that account; and it’s been fabulous.”
“I just wanted to see a lot of my friends and neighbors who are not there anymore and give them hugs,” said Darla Amundson, who lived in the Prairie Lakes Estate Mobile Park. “We are always still together we're just not in the same place.”
The sheriff said the leftover donation money will be used for a park beautification project in Chetek to create a tornado memorial as a thank you to everyone. Wednesday night, every property owner also walked away with a blossoming crabapple tree as a sign of remembrance.
Today marks the one year anniversary of the fatal tornado that swept through four western Wisconsin counties.
On May 16 2017, the longest on-the-ground tornado ever recorded in Wisconsin traveled through Polk, Barron, Rusk and Price counties, leaving behind an 84 mile path of destruction.
One man was killed in Chetek and dozens of others were hurt.
In Barron County, the EF 3 damaged more than 150 properties and caused more than $10 million in damage.
Since then, the community has come together to rebuild and more than one million dollars has been raised to support the victims.