24 years ago today: the tornado that changed my future

Do you ever wonder why people choose the path they choose in life for a career? Well, here’s my story.

Weather is part of everyone’s life; it’s a fact that weather impacts everything that you do on a daily basis. It’s something I remember always having a fascination for and thinking about in an intellectual way. I have heard stories from old babysitters, great grandparents, and teachers, “what’s with Chris reading the crawl on the bottom of the TV”, or “Chris sat and watched this storm in our garage for 30 straight minutes, why?”. My dad used to leave for work with the weather channel on the TV, and then come home with it still on asking, “Did you keep the channel on 29 (the weather channel’s number) the whole time I was at work?”. Welcome to world of Chris Nelson.

My interests peaked one hot summer day in 1994, 24 years ago today. It was July 5th, 1994. I was nine years old heading into the 5th grade at Denmark Elementary, in just under two months, in Wisconsin. I remember it being a warm, humid day with temperatures in the 80s. The day before, we always went to a family get together for the 4th of July to BBQ, play softball, and just be around each other. So, the 5th was just another day. Early that afternoon, the skies turned dark and hail started to fall. I read somewhere that if you saw hail fall, especially the size I saw, which was golf ball-sized hail, a tornado was coming. This isn’t obviously true, but there is a correlation between large hail size and updrafts. I digress; anyways, I peeked outside my porch after I knew the hail was done falling. I looked to the south out of our trailer park home and saw a spinning cloud. Everyone will have moments in their lives of surrealness, thinking this cannot be real: a tornado was spinning just south. This was in an age that tornado warnings were not great; in fact, the NWS in Green Bay didn’t even have a Doppler radar in at that point. Images days later were used from the radar system from Milwaukee confirming the velocity couplet, showing a tornado.

When I snapped out of it and realized we needed to take cover I ran in to tell my mom. She didn’t believe me for a split second. She starred at it for a moment and knew I was right. It was about a mile or so away from our house. The tornado sitting there, moving from right to left from my viewpoint, was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was about a quarter-mile wide with a gray tint to it, and I thought it was moving rather quickly.

Living in a trailer park, we always had a plan to get out and head by my grandma’s house, who lived in town about a mile or so away. Ironically, my grandma was over dropping off a few groceries for us since we only had one car at the time, and pops was at work. We ran to the car, with my four year old brother, and headed out of the trailer park. As we were driving away, my grandma noticed we left the screen door open, so she insisted on going back to shut it. At that point, I was screaming in the backseat that if we didn’t move and get out of there, we would be flying away in the tornado with the screen door. Eventually, we made it out of the trailer park and to my grandma’s place. By that time, the tornado was done and did its damage.

Courtesy: Green Bay Press Gazette July 6th, 1994

We turned on the TV, and finally a tornado warning was issued; now-a-days, we have the technology to see rotation on radar, issue a tornado warning and then the tornado actually touches down. Back then, and especially before the 1990s, tornadoes would occur, then the warning would be issued. Thank the technology, because this saves lives.

Courtesy: Green Bay Press Gazette July 6th, 1994

The tornado was one of the strongest to hit northeastern Wisconsin rated an F-4, before we went to the new enhanced fujita scale. It had winds of over 150 mph, damaged 26 homes, 19 vehicles, and a mobile home. Thankfully only two injuries occurred and no one was killed. I still have friends and people I know in the Denmark area that talk about this tornado. Also, back in the late 1980s, another tornado hit the Cooperstown area. Just in 2013, six tornadoes were confirmed in a large cluster of thunderstorms in southern Brown and northern Manitowoc Counties. This caused damage to the same area in the Cooperstown/Denmark area.

Courtesy: Green Bay Press Gazette July 6th, 1994

There were two tornadoes confirmed from this supercell thunderstorm, which was spawned by a lake breeze. I had the chance to do an interview with the Denmark News last month about my experience 24 years ago. I’ll add the link to it when it comes out. It truly changed my life, thinking, and respect toward Mother Nature. It’s a day I’ll always remember, and the day I knew weather was something I wanted to watch the rest of my life.

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