A church obliterated, a city battered: Southern Wisconsin staggered by storms (2024)

STATE JOURNAL STAFF

ARGYLE — A series of powerful storms and tornadoes staggered southern Wisconsin on Saturday, obliterating a 129-year-old church in Lafayette County, causing wind damage and flooding in Janesville, and leaving thousands without power.

Even the cemetery behind Apple Grove Lutheran Church in Argyle wasn't safe, the tornado that erased the church from the landscape having knocked over dozens of grave markers.

“It's just so random. The ones that are all over the place down and up," a tearful Diane Boyle said as she wandered, stunned, through the damaged cemetery. “People don't realize how bad it really is down here.”

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While other properties in the area appeared to have sustained some damage, the tornado seemed to have picked out the church alone for complete destruction. Singly and in pairs, parishioners began arriving at the church early Sunday morning to begin piling debris and clearing the side lawn for an impromptu outdoor service.

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"There's nothing you can do. It's just gone," parishioner Phil Johnson said after retrieving part of the church's bell from the rubble.

South of Janesville, a reported tornado caused considerable damage to some buildings, downed trees and knocked out power to many, the city reported Sunday. No injuries were reported, but members of one household were trapped in a basem*nt and had to be rescued by the Janesville Fire Department.

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Alliant Energy said about 10,000 customers were without power, including 800 near Janesville and 8,500 closer to Lake Geneva. We Energies reported more than 1,600 customers without power Sunday morning.

And flooding was a widespread issue in streets and basem*nts across southern Wisconsin.

Jill Kutzke, a Baraboo resident, said the flooding wasn't as bad as 1993 or 2008, "but it was still a doozy."

“The rains came down and created a new creek right next to a home on Silver Drive.”

Portage had 4.7 inches of rain in 48 hours and 2.3 inches of rain in the last 24 hours.

Janesville has established an "overnight closure perimeter" defined by Center Avenue, Kellogg Avenue, Beloit Avenue and Highway 11 to allow emergency crews to operate, the city said. Residents will be allowed to enter the area, but outside traffic will not be permitted.

A volunteer and help center have been set up at the Old Rock County Job Center, 1900 Center Ave., while ECHO of Janesville is accepting financial donations to help those affected by the storm and the Salvation Army is accepting donations such as bottled water.

More details are available onthe city of Janesville website.

The National Weather Service sent teams to investigate the reported tornadoes in the area. Crews were sent to Janesville and Williams Bay near Lake Geneva to assess the damage from a likely tornado, said National Weather Service meteorologist Sarah Marquardt. Crews will also head to Argyle and Watertown to respond to damage from likely tornadoes.

Assessments would take much of Sunday to complete, Marquardt said.

Through the end of May, Wisconsin already had been hit by 23 tornadoes this year, which is how many tornadoes the state typically sees in a full year, the Weather Service said.

Last year, Wisconsin experienced 21 tornadoes, although 15 of those occurred on one day, March 31. In part because of that, 2023's tornadoes were unusually centered in southern Wisconsin near the Illinois border.

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In 2022, there were 28 tornadoes altogether, but only seven through the end of May. By the end of June 2022, there had been 20 tornadoes statewide.

In 2021, an astonishing 41 tornadoes hit, though none before June 24. Most occurred in July and August, but a Dec. 15 storm system spawned 10, including four F2s, which are extremely rare in Wisconsin. Since 2014, other than the Dec. 15 storms that year, only 11 tornadoes rated F2 or higher have hit the state.

The 2024 tornado season got off to a record-early start, on Feb. 8, with two tornadoes damaging parts of Green, Rock, Dane and Jefferson counties.

While the region caught a break from the storms Sunday, with dry and cooler conditions, thunderstorms are predicted again Tuesday.

Reporters Francesca Pica, Emilie Heidemann and John Gittings and assistant city editor Kirsten Adshead contributed to this report.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of parishioner Phil Johnson's first name.

Photos: Storm destroys Wisconsin church

Apple Grove Lutheran Church

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Apple Grove church

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Apple Grove Lutheran Church

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Apple Grove church cleanup

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Argyle church destroyed

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Service in Argyle

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Argyle church

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A church obliterated, a city battered: Southern Wisconsin staggered by storms (2024)
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