This is my personal experience of the May 16th, 2017 supercell in Northwest WI.
I got off of work early around 1 pm to head to a doctor appointment that was scheduled between 2-3 o'clock in Chippewa Falls. That morning I made sure I packed all my chase essentials such as my laptop and cameras.
We knew there was a severe weather potential on Tuesday but were not certain if there was a going to be an event worth chasing. But, as a chaser, you have to be ready. Especially here in Wisconsin where the weather is notorious for turning a complete 180 on a short notice.
My appointment was finished around 3 pm and I got my laptop up and ready to check the radar.
There was a decent line of isolated thunderstorms developing from the twin cities in Minnesota straight south. Kinda paralleling I35 and moving north east. One of the northern cells went severe warned I believe for Goodhue County in Minnesota. It looked decent on radar and was about 50k ft tall.
Initially, this was going to be my target storm. It was heading northeast toward southern Pierce County in Wisconsin.
It would be ideal to allow the storm to mature for a little longer as I was planning my long drive to intercept.
However, the cell began to weaken as it progressed further northeast.
Storms began firing up to the north right over the twin cities and slowly moving east and north east into extreme western St. Croix county in Wisconsin.
The cells had an interesting banana shape on radar at first which led me to believe these two cells were tilting updrafts.
I had a weather radio in my car rattling off current weather conditions for the area. This was around 3:30ish, and Rice Lake in Barron county had a 66 degree air temp with a 64 degree dew point with winds out of the SE at 13 mph gusting to 18 mph.
Menomonie was clear skies with a temp in the upper 70's and a 60-some degree dewpoint.
So, surface temps close to dewpoint temps in Rice Lake with a steady SE wind is what sealed the deal on heading north.
I raced north on highway 53 to highway 8 west. The supercell to the northwest kinda stalled over northern St. Croix and southern Polk Counties and went severe warned before I got onto HWY. 53 from Chippewa Falls.
I headed northbound all the way to HWY. 8 and headed west toward the town of Barron. The cell went tornado warned just as I was reaching the eastern end of town.
Looking on radar the cell had the classic 'hook echo' with an intense precip core just east of the town of Clayton. I needed to quickly slip through town and drop south on HWY. 25 to intercept the southwest flank of the storm.
I was slightly worried I would be caught in the forward flank of the storm somewhere on HWY. 25 between Hillsdale and Barron but managed to stay ahead of it just in time.
I couldn't see anything to the west from HWY 25 that resembled any supercell structure until I got a few miles down 8th avenue west just northwest of Hillsdale.
Then the storm showed it's ugly face.
A nice dark gray barrel shaped rotating updraft with a solid base straight west of my location. A constant low rumbling of thunder above me as the updraft slowly churned in a counter-clockwise motion.
Bolts of lightning horizontally piercing through the walls of this twisting beast as it began to grow more intense.
The forward flank precip core to the north had a yellowish gray tint. This storm was serious!
I kept watching the updraft base for any sign of a lowering or wall cloud. I couldn't make out any key structure at that level. I could see the the left edge of an intense rain curtain and that was it.
I decided to head back east onto HWY. 25 and stopped to watch it again. By the time I got to HWY. 25 the mesocyclone was only a handful of miles to my west.
A nice beaver tail was rapidly feeding into the base from right to left. Then two more beaver tails would form. One of the beaver tails was so close to the ground it was scraping just above the tree line to my northwest.
But still, the area of rotation was completely wrapped in rain. A few times I could make out small funnel shaped sub-vortices that seemed to touch the ground and then dissipate. I wasn't sure what I was seeing at the time. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me?
The dark wide, rain wrapped wall was closing in on me fast so I quickly dropped south on HWY. 25.
When I got to Hillsdale I could see the outer rain bands whipping in fast from the west.
The RFD winds began to howl and I was probably going close to 80 mph at this time trying to get a safe distance between me and the mesocyclone.
I looked over my right shoulder out the rear window and seen a dark wall right over HWY 25 about a half mile behind me.
Cars and trucks heading north were driving straight into it. I was imagining the worse case scenario was about to unfold but miraculously no one was injured as far as I know.
The RFD winds were intense for about a minute as they shook and swerved my car into a frenzy. Small branches and tree debris was raining down on top of me. I could hear the debris hitting the side and the top of my car. I will admit, I was pretty scared for a moment.
I reached a few miles down the highway and decided to stop for a few minutes to gather my bearings. By this time the storm was wreaking havoc just northeast of Hillsdale and heading toward the outer-northern areas of Chetek.
A tornado was reported on the ground northwest of Chetek soon after. Looking on radar the area of rotation appeared to be wrapped in rain. It was also getting to far ahead of me and I decided to halt the chase from there on out.
I did latch onto another supercell that was brewing to the southwest of the town of Ridgeland over northern Dunn County shortly after I abandoned the main supercell.
I got into position south of Ridgeland and seen a nice non-rotating wall cloud with that cell. Some pea to dime size hail fell onto my location as well. The wall cloud became deformed looking and soon disappeared out of sight.
I would follow that storm on HWY 64 east toward Bloomer.
The storm went tornado warned before it passed north of Bloomer, and from where I was at pacing along with the storm on HWY 64, I did not see anything tornadic with that cell. The structure was very un-organized with heavy rain really close to the updraft base. Im not even sure why it was tornado warned.
As I got to HWY. 53 near Bloomer I seen a small convoy of ambulances heading north. I had a bad feeling that they were heading into the tornado hit areas.
I got onto HWY. 53 and followed the emergency vehicles all the way to the first Chetek exit. They went one way to the north and I went another way toward the northeastern areas of town a few miles out.
I can see people ahead of me steadily filtering down a certain back road and I followed behind them.
I eventually ended up near the tornado damage path. A good size wood lot was tore up from west to east. You can tell easily tell where the tornado went through.
Several people with chain saws were heading up this little road. I got out and followed to an area where the road was blocked off by about a half mile of downed trees. Many people were there helping clear the cut up trees and branches, so I decided to get in there and help too.
Plenty of debris was scattered across the area. Powerlines were down everywhere.
It felt good to lend a helping hand.
I didn't know the magnitude of the storm until I got home later that night. One person lost their life and about 30 injured in a trailer home area north of Chetek.
The tornado would later be rated as an EF3, and also the longest tracked tornado in Wisconsin history. A whopping 83 miles on the ground!
I will never forget May 16th, 2017.
-Joe S.(WIWX Storm Chaser)
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