A look back at the May 22nd tornado outbreak


The date May 22, 2011 will be long remembered here in Western Wisconsin and also across the country. Tornadoes wreaked havoc across the central portions of the United States including here in Western Wisconsin. A long lived super cell thunderstorm dropped several tornadoes a long a line from Howard and Fillmore counties in Iowa through Wood County here in Western Wisconsin. Below you can see an archived image of the radar beginning at 1:35pm through 6:20pm. The yellow boxes are severe thunderstorm warnings and the pink boxes are tornado warnings. Most of the action for Western Wisconsin was down south but a very weak tornado briefly touched down in Barron County just northeast of Rice Lake.

The supercell had already dropped four tornadoes before it approached the city of La Crosse. As seen on the map below, the tornado touched down at 4pm across the Mississippi in Houston County. It quickly intensified to an EF-2 as it crossed the river and moved into La Crosse. It would weaken as it moved through the heart of the city and would eventually lift east of town at around 4:28pm after traveling 16 miles. The last time La Crosse was hit by a tornado was way back on July 10, 1966.

Below are some images from some of the destruction across La Crosse. Thankfully, Gundersen Lutheran Hospital was spared a direct hit. The same could not be said for another tornado that happened this same day down in Joplin, MO. The EF-5 tornado went right over St. Joseph’s Hospital in Joplin. That tornado would kill 161 people and would overshadow all other tornadoes on this day one year ago. All images are from the National Weather Service in La Crosse.



The most severe damage occurred at the Green Island Ice Arena as seen in the image below. This was when the twister reached its max width of 150 yards.


Above is some video shot by Trish Vail of a tornado that developed in Sparta. The supercell continued moving east northeast dropping the next tornado just to the southwest of Rockland at 4:47pm. The map below shows that the twister crossed I-94 making it all the way up to the south-side of Sparta.

The twister was on the ground for 8 miles. It flipped at least one car at a dealership on its way to Sparta. Damage in Sparta was mainly done to trees, windows, and powerlines along with some roof and shed damage. The tornado was rated an EF-1 with a max width of 125 yards. The tornado would lift on the southeast side of town. Below is a picture from some damage in Sparta.


The last tornado of this supercell was the worst to touch down. It touched down at 5:15pm and would stay on the ground past 6:00pm traveling a staggering 37 miles. The beginning of its life was just a few miles northwest of Tomah. The twister strengthened on the northeast side of Tomah doing EF-2 damage along Dolphin Road as seen by the image below.

The track continued east northeast through mainly wooded areas around Mather. It at weakened at this point for a time, but would once again increase in strength as it moved just to the east of Finley along County Road F. Below you can see the damage done to a garage that was flattened. Hardest hit was Cranberry Creek, a local cranberry grower where EF-2 damage was done. Many structures were destroyed or badly damaged.


This was a very powerful system that dropped tornadoes from Wisconsin to Oklahoma. As you saw in the image at the top of this blog. There were over 60 reports of tornadoes plus hundreds and hundreds of reports of large hail and damaging winds. Here in Wisconsin it wasn't all that warm that day, and humidity wasn't that high as either. The tornadoes that occurred in Wisconsin were mainly driven by superb upper level winds and shear. Below is a surface map from that afternoon. The low center in Minnesota created a lot of spin in the atmosphere. There was enough instability to take advantage of all that spin, which allowed for long track tornadoes.

The tornadoes in Wisconsin and even the tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis that day was eclipsed by the EF-5 monster that hit Joplin, Missouri. Below are links to more information and a look back at the Minneapolis and Joplin tornadoes. For me I will always remember May 22nd and that day after. I had never seen tornado damage before, and I was in awe. It's amazing what weather can do, and it's hard not to feel something when you see it. Being down there you really see how it affects real people. It really puts my job in perspective. With Joplin in the back of my mind, I kept thinking this, wow, this was EF-2 damage. That was emotional enough. I couldn't imagine seeing something like Joplin. I hope I never have to see that.

Minneapolis Tornado

Joplin Tornado


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