My Price County Administrator
Jul 04, 2017 at 11:03 AM
"Phillips is no more" -- Remembering 40 Years After the "Downburst"
Forty years ago on July 4th at 2:55 p.m., around the time the parade will end in downtown Phillips later today, a great storm hit. For anyone who lived here in 1977, they remember the pea soup green color of the sky, the loud freight train sound of the winds, the scared emotions they felt, the compassion of neighbors helping neighbors and strangers helping strangers, and the determination of the area to repair and restore the great City of Phillips.
While no one knew what type of “oversized tornado” storm system was hitting Phillips in the moment, it was later learned to be a derecho with downburst winds. Downbursts happen when cool air from a thunderstorm rushes to the ground, producing straight-line winds. This derecho produced winds reaching 100 miles per hour, according to the anemometer at the Price County Airport in Phillips before the anemometer blew away. The 14-hour long storm system started its approximately 800 mile long by 17 mile wide swath of destruction in North Dakota and concluded in Ohio. However, Price, Sawyer, and Oneida Counties in Wisconsin were the hardest hit.
Most, if not all, homes in the City of Phillips were damaged with 30-some being total losses. About twenty people were injured. Some community members mentioned a young girl, who was vacationing with her family, being killed at Solberg Park, though we could not find this information in any documentation we reviewed. One death is shown on record in Sawyer County. According to the National Weather Service, 172,000 acres of woodlands were severely damaged or destroyed. In 1977 dollars, the damage was estimated at 24 million dollars.
At the time, Wisconsin governor, Martin Schreiber, arrived and stated, “Nowhere have I seen devastation like this in Wisconsin in recent times.”
Forty years later, some citizens shared their first-hand accounts of that indelible storm. From pets cowering under tables to small children being scared and adults lending a helping hand, everyone was affected by the storm.
Dan Hein was in Northern Manitoba the day of the storm. “I was getting some water out of an enormous lake and, looking south at 3 p.m., said to Linda, ‘Wow! Look at those thunderclouds all in a chain! Somebody is really getting it today.’ Those were clouds of the front that went through Phillips!”
Dan added some additional insight about the storm’s destruction and likelihood that one will hit an area. “This derecho blew down the entire “Big Block” in the Flambeau State Forest. The Big Block had never been cut. It's trees arched over the Flambeau River on both sides making the river seem it was going through a tunnel. It was awesome! It was the largest stand of northern hardwoods outside of the Appalachians. It all went down in 20 minutes save for the big white pine which withstood the blast. Foresters at the UW have told me they have been studying this storm ever since and have concluded that other derechos have roared through northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota, 'like a tornado on its side,' over and over in the past with the likelihood every area will be hit once in a thousand years. Too bad it had to hit The Big Block. We can rebuild a town, we can replant city trees. In forty years you would hardly know the storm went through, but we cannot restore an entire ancient ecosystem. Driving by, you would never know there had been a storm. Many hardwoods were mostly blown down but not killed. The maples and ash have remained alive and their former side branches have now all grown straight skyward, a real mess for human passage through the forest,” Dan added.
Robert Larson was at a picnic at Hultman Lake with his wife, Liz, and their infant son, plus the Guzinski family. “The sky turned a horrible rose, yellowish green. We packed up and left. By Stones Lake, a tree blew across the road. We turned around and by Willy Blomberg’s another tree blocked the road,” Robert said. He added they waited out the storm at Willy’s until David Mattson came with a chain saw and opened the road for travel.
Midge Nehiba was at her mother’s house in Ogema, where she watched the sky turn green. “The mercury in the thermometer visibly dropped. It was time to head south for home,” Midge stated. She said her aunt and uncle lived along the river on the north side of Phillips. With about one hundred pine trees covering their property before the storm, every tree perished with the high winds of the day. “My aunt had a big garden and the carrots were pulled right out of the ground and scattered across the garden,” she remembered.
Weathering a huge storm lying down on the floor of a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville outside of Warga’s on South Highway 13 does not sound like fun, but it was reality for Bradley Lietha. “A lighter car would have turned over,” he is certain. During the storm, Bradley looked up out the window only to see Warga’s roof peeling away. “After it was over, we looked up the street past the bowling alley and saw utter chaos. Campers were tipped over on the street, house roofs [and more] just blown around in the sad aftermath.” Bradley remarked that clean-up was tricky as there were a number of chainsaw injuries by folks that had likely never spent much time with a chainsaw in the past, plus chainsaws did not have certain safety features at the time.
“I'll never forget that storm,” Karen Smart shared. “We were at my in-laws home next door to ours. Friends from Illinois were visiting them. We'd just finished eating when we noticed the green sky to the west. We all agreed we'd better take cover and soon! Into the house [we went], and we stayed upstairs watching the trees in our field snap off. Our son was just 1 ½ years old. We moved downstairs after about ten minutes and heard the trees falling outside. When it was over, twenty minutes later, we went out to view the damage. A tree was leaning against the house, and Mick and I were really scared our home was severely damaged or gone. We walked home and climbed over trees to get up to the house. Thank God our house was untouched.” Karen said lots of branches were down but there was no physical damage to their home. “We went back to the in-laws and had a few people try to get past the house, but the road was entirely blocked. We asked if they had gone through Phillips and they replied, ‘Phillips is no more.’ We were without power for 10 days. John and Jerry Fusak came down the road cutting trees and cut up the trees in our driveway. My parents lived in Skokie, Illinois, and I couldn't get a hold of them for several days. It was a life remembering experience.”
“I’ll never forget this,” Holly Henderson Ernst admitted, as well. “I was 6 ½ years old with my parents at Westwood Golf Course. They had out-of-town friends, Gary and Marty Kohl Seymour, visiting and were playing some golf. We were all walking the course. I remember the sky turning green and them saying, "We need to get off the course." We all went in the basement of Westwood but came upstairs briefly. I remember seeing those giant trees being snapped in two. I was so scared for our animals at home.” Once the storm had passed, the Hendersons drove their 1969 Buick Electra convertible home, not knowing what they would find. “Power lines and trees were down everywhere. I'll never forget seeing a woman in the bay window of her house praying. That image has stuck with me for many years.” Holly added that before the storm hit, the kids would play “tree tag” outside while their parents were socializing inside Westwood. After the storm, the game had to be renamed to “stump tag.”
Like Holly, Davette Hrabak was a young girl at the time. She remembers it being a super hot, humid July 4th when the sky quickly turned an awful greenish color and the high winds were very loud. “We lived in the country with tons of trees surrounding us. With no basement at the time, there was nowhere to go for shelter, so my mom, Judy Hayton, and I sat huddled on the front porch. I was seven and scared. My mom, who was pregnant with my sister, Lynne, at the time, tried to comfort me. She said, ‘Don't worry; it will be okay. The big white pine is still standing.’” Davette said the white pine was so large that her mom would not have been able to fully wrap her arms around the trunk. Not long after Judy comforted Davette with those words, the great white pine fell, and Judy did not share that scary news with her daughter. “After the storm, we went outside and saw the tree was uprooted and landed on my stepfather's spare car in our front yard only about twenty feet from the porch where we had been sitting. My stepfather, Jerry Bohn, had been driving during the storm, knowing he had to get to us, but fearful that he would find us dead. He said the van lifted up off the road while he was driving in the high winds to get to us. We were all very lucky.”
Davette added that after the storm, power was out for quite a few days. “County Road F towards Phillips had extremely tall pine trees along it, but all were destroyed. People had all kinds of odd stories such as grass blades being shoved through tree trunks, some things in one area being completely destroyed while just a couple feet away fragile things were left unharmed. Volunteers came from all over and helped people clean up. Our small community, with the help of others, banded together and survived.”
For years, the Downburst Celebration was intertwined with Independence Day activities. While the downburst celebration name was erased from events in recent years, The Phillips Area Chamber of Commerce has brought it back this year with the Downburst Celebration Parade. Many floats will be depicting events surrounding the downburst. You can enjoy the parade from Lake Avenue today, July 4th, at 2 p.m. Enjoy the auction and first-ever, Chalkfest, afterward. The fireworks will be at dusk over Lake Duroy.
[Edited by My Price County Administrator on Jul 04, 2017 at 11:16 AM]