May 16—CHETEK — The aftermath of the tornado that ripped through a rural Chetek mobile home park five years ago still ranks as the worst natural disaster site witnessed by Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald.
As he stood at ground zero of the tornado's destruction zone, Fitzgerald was surrounded by random chunks of debris, furniture and personal belongings from the dozens of homes destroyed by the EF-3 tornado.
Faced with the unfathomable scene at Prairie Lake Estates, he recalls wondering, "What do we do first?"
The long road to recovery reached a key milestone Monday — the fifth annniversary of the tornado — when Fitzgerald gathered with park residents and other local officials to cut the ribbon for a storm shelter on the property about 4 miles north of Chetek.
"It was awesome, unbelievable and shows that this community can do anything," Fitzgerald said.
The bright red concrete shelter, designed to withstand winds up to 250 mph, can hold up to 138 people. It is equipped with a bathroom and emergency lighting and power.
"It's somewhere safe that people can go. That's what it's all about," Fitzgerald said.
Residents of Prairie Lake Estates had no such safe harbor when the tornado struck around supper time on May 16, 2017, killing 45-year-old Eric Gavin and injuring 25 others.
The storm, with winds estimated by the National Weather Service at up to 140 mph, destroyed two-thirds of the park's 58 units "beyond recognition," Fitzgerald said at the time.
The days after the tornado were filled with remarkable stories of park residents who rode out the storm amid crumbling walls, flying debris and golf ball-sized hail. The massive cleanup attracted hundreds of volunteers from across the Midwest, and multiple churches and agencies provided aid to residents who lost their homes or were affected in other ways.
Recovery has been a slow process, hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, rising building costs and the psychological hurdle of people putting up new mobile homes at a site that was hit by such a severe natural disaster. The tornado set a Wisconsin record with a path of 83 miles through Polk, Barron, Rusk and Price counties, with the worst of the damage at the mobile home park.
Five years later, Prairie Lake Estates still has only 30 homes — just over half of its pre-storm density.
"We've come back some, but we haven't come back a lot," said park owner Elvina Gagner. "People were afraid to come here. It was a bad mess, and that's what they still remember."
A National Weather Service study showed that Barron County had 44 tornadoes, the sixth most in Wisconsin, from 1844 through 2014.
Gagner is optimistic the long-awaited storm shelter will open the door to more recovery.
"It means a lot," Gagner said. "People in the park will feel more secure because of it, and I think that may help bring more people in."
Fitzgerald agreed, saying the shelter could offer the peace of mind needed to attract more residents to the park, which could provide the added benefit of helping to alleviate the county's affordable housing shortage.
The $204,000 shelter was funded almost entirely by a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant secured by the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
Fitzgerald noted that he got "goose bumps" when he learned at Monday's ceremony that the facility already was a source of comfort to some park residents who took refuge in the shelter when a storm with strong winds blew through the area one evening last week.