At 6:15 pm on July 19th, the sky looked weird and the air turned deathly still.

We had planned to go to an outdoor concert in Amery, Wisconsin that fateful Friday night. We had packed four folding chairs and packed them in the trunk along with rain jackets, just in case. Fortunately, we’d left the car in the garage with the door shut.

“Can’t tell whether it’s going to rain or not, said Gunter, my husband. “If it does, we can go to the fish fry instead.”

The four of us—Gunter and I along with his younger siblings, Helmut and Helga—remained on the patio, staring at the sky. It was turning greenish-black.

“I don’t like this,” I said. “Let’s get inside.”

We entered the sunroom with picture windows facing the gardens and White Ash Lake. Then it hit. Suddenly the sky roared like an oncoming freight train—and then whooshed through the treetops like a jet engine. We stood there, transfixed. Our feet were riveted to the floor. We were seeing, firsthand, the sheer, raw power of nature. One huge pine twisted, uprooted, and crashed to the ground in a slow, deliberate motion. Then another. And another. Altogether, our six trees at the shoreline fell on top of each other like dominoes. Their trunks and branches carpeted the entire lawn between our house and dock. Beyond, we could see White Ash Lake kicking up angry waves. My heart pounded but common sense prevailed.

“Move away from the windows; they could break!” I yelled.

Terrified, yet fascinated, the others just stood there.

White Ash Lake Tornado 2019

The pines along the lakeshore fell across the yard like dominoes.

“Move!” I insisted. “This is a tornado. I’ve been in one before. Follow me down to the bunk room. That’s our safe space.”

They didn’t get it.

Then a dull, heavy THUD shook the house. The roof! The sky turned black and the power went out.

We all raced down to the bunk room, a windowless Man Cave we had fashioned out of the utility room for our grandsons. Gunter grabbed flashlights but our trusty generator kicked in after 10 long seconds. We had lights! Five minutes later, the generator stuttered and stopped. My stomach clenched and my tongue felt like sandpaper. To drown out the godawful noise, I chattered about the tornado I’d experienced in as a child in 1952. My Bavarian husband and his siblings had never experienced one in Germany; they had no first-hand knowledge.

When the racket subsided, we ventured upstairs. It was only 6:45 although it had seemed like an eternity. The sky was no longer black; the storm had moved on. Our first impulse was to go outside. We were shocked to discover there was no way out. Fallen trees and branches filled every window and door. Out of the lakeside windows, I could see nothing but trees across our entire lower patio and yard. We couldn’t see the dock, but I thought we saw a glimmer of white beyond the tangle of trees. “That must be our pontoon,” Gunter said softly, still in shock.

Helga called our attention to water dripping onto the kitchen counter and splashing onto the floor. “Looks like the roof is leaking,” she said. We sprang into action, positioning every wastebasket and bucket we could find. Later, we found water dripping from our rec room ceiling. We covered the sofa below with towels.

Because we couldn’t exit through any of our doors, Gunter manually opened the garage. We all filed out behind him, astonished at the destruction. Our driveway was blocked by fallen trees; but no matter, so many trees had fallen from the woods onto South White Ash Lane that we could barely make out the road!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My daughter Kim and son-in-law Mike insisted on driving to Northern Bliss as soon as they could. They had experienced straight-line winds but even those downed six trees on their property—thankfully, none near their house. The downpour had created a river of rushing water down their driveway. We begged them not to try; they wouldn’t be able to get through. But they were determined. Their usual 20-minute trip took 2.5 hours, chainsawing their way through. The worst devastation they encountered along the way was my four-acre wooded property, with hundreds of trees down, some of them across the road. There they joined the drivers of five other blocked cars who were also chainsawing their way through. Their last challenge was to move parts of trees blocking our dead-end road. Mike and Kim wanted to bring us back to their home, but we said no. We were the bucket brigade, protecting our property from further damage from the rain. We four spent the night the old-fashioned way: by candlelight. We collected rainwater from the buckets to flush the toilets.

White Ash Lake Tornado

Holly removes branches from my hydrangea and hosta garden.

Early Saturday morning, Mike called on all our relatives living in Minneapolis to come on down to help. Six arrived, each with his or her own chainsaw. Mike’s brother-in-law helped him tarp the roof, which was broken right at the peak with a massive oak branch inside the hole! A huge tree had uprooted and tipped the propane tank partly on its side. The jolt had cut the buried line from the generator to the propane tank; Mike went to Menards to purchase copper tubing. Then he built a new line. The others focused on cutting the trees that had fallen from the woods across the street onto our driveways. Downed power lines crossed the driveway exit, but they could clear the entrance. My granddaughter Holly especially impressed me. She owns a “Queen” battery-powered chainsaw and cut and removed branches from my hydrangea and hosta gardens. Seeing six relatives—without helmets, chaps and boots—wield those chainsaws impressed Helga. In Germany, such work would require licensing, training, and special clothes. Chainsaws would not be a common item in their garages.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

By Saturday afternoon, we had generator power again. Those in the White Ash Lake area without generators waited 1-2 weeks for the electric company to repair all the lines. They had 6000-7000 customers without power in Polk County and brought in 100 linemen from Minnesota. The following week, The Wisconsin National Guard arrived to help open the roads to remote homes on the other side of White Ash Lake.

In addition to structural damage to the house roof, minor damage to the cabin, a destroyed dock and boat lift canopy, arbors, and numerous smaller items, Northern Bliss lost 22 mature oaks and pine; it will never be the same in my lifetime. A similar story can be told among all the property owners around North and South White Ash Lake. Not one of 80+ properties was spared. I expect to hear the buzz of chainsaws, the grinding of stumps, the roar of heavy machinery, and the pounding of hammers until frost—as the recovery continues. How ironic! My latest blog was about migrating north to the sounds of silence here in the land of lakes and woods. The silver lining is that all are safe, and no lives were lost, thank God. We will rebuild.

Next: The Recovery Begins

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website https://loisjoyhofmann.com.