Historic windstorm produced unusual December tornadoes in western Wisconsin, knocked out power to 150,000 in southeast

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A massive windstorm Wednesday night and Thursday brought tornadoes to Wisconsin in December for the first time in over 50 years and knocked down trees and power lines across the state.

Southeastern Wisconsin largely escaped the widespread damage seen elsewhere in the Upper Midwest, but an estimated 150,000 We Energies customers in the area lost electricity. The utility pledged it would restore power to most customers by late Friday night.

Surveyors with the National Weather Service confirmed tornadoes in western Wisconsin in Stanley and Neillsville, apparently the latest tornadoes have formed in the calendar year since recordkeeping began in the state.

Photos posted to social media showed extensive damage in Stanley, about 35 miles northwest of Eau Claire. Roofs were ripped off homes, vehicles were overturned, large trees were uprooted and debris was scattered across roads.

According to Eau Claire-based reporters, as of Thursday afternoon, there had been no reports of injuries from the Stanley tornado.

The Neillsville tornado was an EF-2, according to surveyors, meaning it had winds of 111 to 135 mph.

The weather service reported trees and power lines in Neillsville fell over roads and roofs were damaged.

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Strong winds uproot trees, knock down power lines

Strong wind gusts, at times reaching hurricane-strength, buffeted the state.

Several spots in Wisconsin saw gusts of 50 to 70 mph overnight, according to reports from the weather service.

The Rhinelander airport reported a 76 mph gust, a high point among many especially strong wind reports.

Downed trees and power lines appeared to make up the bulk of the damage in the Milwaukee area and southern Wisconsin in general, according to weather service reports.

Trees fell on homes in Slinger, Waukesha and Hartland, according to reports. And in Sullivan, a barn was blown over.

States to the south and west of Wisconsin experienced far more damage than southern Wisconsin, said weather service meteorologist Taylor Patterson.

The region largely avoided “big structural damage," Patterson said.

We Energies working to restore electricity to its customers

As many as 150,000 We Energies customers lost power in southeast Wisconsin during the storms. By Thursday evening, about 30,000 remained without power.

Most of the outages were in the Milwaukee area, but they extended west to Oconomowoc, south to Union Grove, and north to Port Washington, according to the utility.

Kevin Fletcher, president and CEO of We Energies, said Thursday afternoon he expected 80% of all customers affected to see their power restored by late Thursday night, and up to 95% by Friday night.

"It's an all-hands-on-deck situation," Fletcher said.

It's the second time in four months that We Energies has faced a massive power restoration effort. Another powerful stormed rolled through the region in August, affecting power for more than 225,000 customers.

Winds weakened by late Thursday morning, but lingering gusts up to 45 mph and a larger-than-normal outage area were still complicating restoration efforts, Fletcher said.

“The wind for this one’s most unusual, but we do have winter storms and we’re prepared for those, but the intensity of the wind made this one just a little different,” Fletcher said.

Many schools that found themselves without electricity closed for the day. Fourteen Milwaukee Public Schools moved to virtual learning and said that students without power at home should go to their local libraries.

Tornadoes, wind gusts break records

In Stanley, which suffered the widespread damage, schools were also closed. According to an initial estimate from the Stanley Police Department, about 75% of customers in the city lost power.

Photos from the police department show piles of snow alongside scattered debris.

Tornadoes are extremely rare for December in Wisconsin. The Stanley and Neillsville tornadoes are the first December tornadoes since 1970 in Wisconsin, according to the National Weather Service.

That year, four tornadoes were recorded on Dec. 1 in central Wisconsin and another was recorded on Dec. 3 in Dodge County.

Reliable tornado recordkeeping in Wisconsin began in 1950. Weather service meteorologists say that Wednesday’s tornado was the latest to occur in the calendar year on record.

The windstorm that hit Wisconsin was part of a larger system that affected several Midwest states.

Across Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states, the weather service's Storm Prediction Center recorded at least 55 hurricane-force wind gusts Wednesday.

A hurricane-force wind is one that is 75 mph or higher.

That count came before midnight and had not been updated Thursday, so it could rise.

Wednesday set a new record for highest number of hurricane-force thunderstorm wind gusts in a day in the U.S. since at least 2004, according to the Storm Prediction Center.

The final wind advisory associated with the storm in Wisconsin expired at 5 p.m. Thursday after more than a day of gusts over 40 mph.

Rory Linnane of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Martinez at steve.martinez@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stjmartinez.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin wind storm damage: Power lines down, two tornadoes confirmed

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