McGREGOR — Just hours after a tornado devastated downtown McGregor on Wednesday evening, volunteers swarmed to the small tourist town’s Main Street to help clean up.
The National Weather Service confirmed McGregor was hit by an EF-1 tornado around 6:15 p.m. Those in town when the tornado struck said it seemed to come out of nowhere.
Katie Ruff, owner of By the Spoonful, a specialty grocer downtown, said that in the 15 minutes it took for her to walk from her home to the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce meeting last night, the weather went from being “beautiful, hot and humid, to like a hurricane outside.”
“It got super dark out all of a sudden and then there was a gray cloud, lots of wind and stuff was breaking,” added Kristie Austin, the Chamber’s executive director.
After the storm passed, Ruff said she walked outside to “quite the scene.”
Downed trees, shattered glass and bricks from damaged historic buildings littered the streets. Cars were smashed under the rubble and business signs were ripped from their awnings and thrown down the block.
Many homes and businesses in the area were damaged in the storm and at least three buildings were severely damaged. Two appear to be damaged beyond repair.
Meteorologist Clint Aegerter with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis., said wind speeds reached 110 mph during the storm.
“It was a fairly quick tornado,” he added.
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Thursday morning and into the afternoon at least 1,000 residents remained without power, according to McGregor Mayor Harold Brooks.
“I’ve been here since 1969 and I’ve never seen anything to this extent,” he said of the damage in the Clayton County community. “Last night, it was just shock. Today it’s a cluster.”
The business district and residential areas were a hive of activity on Thursday as business owners, residents and trained cleanup crews worked to remove debris, restore power, assess the damage and make sure everyone is safe.
With many businesses in the Mississippi River town that borders Wisconsin depending on tourism, Brooks expressed concern about the economic losses and road to recovery ahead.
“With three businesses with severe damage, it’s a big hit,” he said. “(Recovery) is going to be lengthy.”
So far, Brooks estimates it will take anywhere from one to seven days to restore power alone.
Fortunately, no injuries or fatalities have been reported in McGregor, although one injury was reported to the north in Allamakee County when a barn collapsed on a 67-year-old man.
Officials are advising the public to steer clear of McGregor today as trained professionals focus on cleanup. With power lines down, Clayton County Sherriff Mike Tschirgi said he doesn’t want any volunteers to get electrocuted. Residents of McGregor can come downtown if necessary, but are advised to do so with caution.
“When something like this happens in a small community, it’s amazing the number of volunteers that come out,” Tschirgi said. “I feel sad for the community. It seems like we’re constantly getting hit (with natural disasters). It’s getting to be common practice.”
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“We live in a river town. We’re used to tragedy,” Ruff said. “People are going to rebuild. ... We may have lost some beautiful buildings but we still have historic charm.”
“We’re dented, but we’re not gone or broken,” Austin agreed. “It’s a setback, but we’ll support everybody and try to find solutions for people. You’d be amazed how much is already cleaned up.”
“We will rise again,” added Maria Brummel, a McGregor resident and owner of one of the damaged buildings, a pharmacy.
“Don’t give up on McGregor,” she said. “We’re going to clean up and be good as new.”
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