Community members step up to aid Waupun, Alto tornado victims

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer

TOWN OF WAUPUN – Nothing tests the fabric of a community’s character like hard times.

Just minutes after a tornado carved a path across ripening corn and soybean fields in Fond du Lac County Tuesday afternoon, leaving behind a wake of uprooted trees, mangled farm buildings and devastated families, concerned citizens raced to the scene to offer aid.

The sounds of chainsaws, generators, scraping metal and machinery filled the air as community members began to help their neighbors wade through the destruction wrought by the late August storm.

Waupun Agriculture teacher and FFA advisor Tari Costello (left) gives Danielle Wetzel a hug and some moral support as the Wetzel family copes with wide spread destruction on their family farm east of Alto.

“Yesterday people began pouring into the yard with trucks and trailers. Even if they didn’t know a thing about cattle, it didn’t matter, they were here to help us get our animals out of the barn and delivered to area farms,” said Danielle Wetzel. “We didn’t have to call anyone.”

The Wetzel’s farm, Pebble Knolls Dairy located just east of Highway 49 on Hemp Road, bore the brunt of the EF-1 tornado, one of seven confirmed tornadoes on Aug. 28. The winds generated by the storm – estimated at up to 100 mph – leveled the buildings sheltering the milking herd and pre-fresh cows, drove two-by-four planks through the walls of one of the family’s homes and bent sheet metal around the branches of a tree like twist-ties.

Everything was gone

Danielle’s husband, Eric, who owns the farm along with his parents Dick and Gail Wetzel who founded the farm in 1970, said employees were inside the milking parlor (one of the few buildings that remained standing) when the storm struck.

Six buildings including a large freestall barn that sheltered the milking herd at Pebble Knolls Dairy were destroyed in a tornado on Aug. 28.

“When we came up out of the basement and looked around I saw the tree damage around the house. Then I looked across the road and everything was gone,” said Eric Wetzel, his voice trailing off. “Thankfully no one was hurt, but this all hasn’t even sunk in yet.”

At least six ot the buildings on the Wetzel's farm were destroyed or damaged in the storm.  Eric's brother, Todd and his wife, Michelle, who live on the farm reported major damage to their home.

“Our youngest daughter, Chelsee, 12, was home alone when the storm hit,” Michelle said. “We couldn’t get ahold of her by phone and it seemed as though every road I tried to get down had a tree blocking it.”

While family members and employees escaped injury, some of the cows in the family’s 650-head milking herd weren’t so lucky. Five cows died of direct injuries from flying debris, while two dozen were slated to be shipped to market due to lacerations from the sharp edges of twisted sheet metal.

Danielle Wetzel says she couldn’t bear to see the loss of life among the herd.

“It was really hard when the truck came to take them away,” said Wetzel as she wiped away tears, “because I know how much they mean to my family.”

Farmers helping farmers

Eric Wetzel said the cows were surprisingly calm as they led them out of the barns and into awaiting trailers to be trucked off to nine different farms Tuesday night until the family is able to rebuild. Seventy-five head of breeding stock were slated to be moved out the next day.

Supplies still sit on shelves in a work shop at Pebble Knolls Dairy that was destroyed by a tornado on Tuesday, Aug. 28.

“Everything went so smoothly last night. We moved close to 700 head of cows in about five hours,” Wetzel said. “This community is top notch.”

The displaced cattle were trucked to farms as near as Daane Dairy down the road to Crave Brothers Farm in Waterloo and to Rosendale Dairy which welcomed 300 of the Wetzel’s cows in their facility near Pickett.

Bill Harke a spokesman says Milk Source was just one of many local farms that jumped in to help during a time of need. One of Milk Source's large dairy farms was the recipient of such help following the freak blizzard in April of this year.

“When we had a barn collapse at Tidy View Dairy in April, many farmers reached out to help us. If we can help the Wetzel family, we’re happy to do so. It’s what Wisconsin farmers do,” Harke said.

Don't know where to start

Just three miles due east as the crow flies, Mike and Robyn Pluim are still trying to cope with a large pile of rubble that was once their barn and silo. Mike Pluim was standing inside his garage waiting for his daughter to come home when torrential rains and high winds began battering the structure.

A confirmed EF1 tornado brought down this barn and silo owned by Mike and Robyn Pluim on Cattaraugus Road just northeast of Waupun on Aug. 28.

“I saw metal flying and the garage started shaking. When I peeked outside the barn was down,” said Pluim, noting the structure was empty at the time. “We had a lot of help last night, and today I’m trying to do the most important things first. I just don’t know where to start.”

In a small feed lot just south of the pile of splintered barn boards and broken staves, a group of heifers lined up at a nearby feed bunk, seemingly oblivious to the chaos around them. The family custom raises heifers for three area farms and says they were lucky to lose only one animal in the storm.

 “You always say ‘Gosh, I hope I never have to live through something like that’, and here it is,” said Robyn.

Cathy Loomans was at work when she learned that her small farmstead on County AS near the community of Alto was struck by a tornado. The storm leveled the family's barn and another outbuildling.

Rich and Cathy Loomans lost a barn and a shed on their homestead on County AS near Alto when a strong line of thunderstorms moved through the area on Aug. 28, producing a tornado.

"We are thankful that our house suffered much less damage than the other buildings," Loomans said. "We are so thankful for friends and neighbors who came out to help and the community for providing for us and those that are helping. We are truly blessed."

A community in need

While the first wave of volunteers rushed out to assist their rural neighbors Tuesday night, a network of community members began forming a plan to reach out to not only the families in need, but the utility crews and band of workers lending aid.

After surveying the damage Tuesday night, Waupun Area High School Agriculture teacher and FFA Advisor Tari Costello sent out a call to arms on Facebook, seeking donations and volunteer workers to meet at the high school the next morning to make sandwiches, and pack boxes of food and water to distribute to workers volunteering at the Wetzel, Pluim and Rich and Cathy Loomans farms, as well as the small community of Alto where power could be out for several days.

Waupun FFA members (from left) Sam Horning, Alexa Kuhn and Kelli Bonack make sandwiches for volunteers and utility workers cleaning up and repairing damage in the wake of the Aug. 28 storm.

By 8 a.m., the commons at the high school was filled with staff and students and piles of donations.

“The best thing we can do right now is provide food and water,” said Costello, noting that many of the district’s FFA chapter members were among the families impacted by the storm. “They’re out there trying to take care of their home places.”

Fellow staff member Jan Schramm says Waupun FFA members are among the first to lend a hand to those in need out in the community.

“They’re always out there in the community helping and giving back. This (storm) really affects a lot of them personally and we want to be there for them,” Schramm said.

FFA Officer team members Alexa Kuhn and Kelli Bonack, and Lawrence Brewer drove to the high school to support their fellow chapter members.

“When I first heard the news I just felt sick inside,” Bonack said. “These farmers and their families have invested their lives in these farms and in just minutes it can be all over.”

Volunteers were also sent to the Waupun Area Food Pantry to help clean up damage inside the Mill Street location.

Waupun Area School District staff members load supplies and food into a vehicle to be delivered to sites impacted by the Aug. 28 tornado.

What small towns do

The city of Waupun is no stranger to adversity. Citizens answered the call for help in 2004, when a tornado pummeled the rural Alto area and swept over the city. It was no different on Wednesday, as local businesses and firms stepped forward to help impacted community members.

"Kwik Trip donated their fruit and bakery items for the effort. As soon as we got word out on Facebook donations began pouring in immediately, but that’s what small towns do,” Costello said.

Michelle Wetzel said friends and strangers along with the Waupun FFA, cross country team and dance team also showed up to lend a hand or drop off food.

"It's been just incredible," she said.

Melissa Daane said her children urged her to set up a GoFundMe fundraiser for her neighbors, Eric and Danielle Wetzel. The Daane’s live just down the road from the Wetzels and are housing 70 of their neighbor’s milk cows.

“The farm is a huge part of the family’s life and I can’t imagine what they must be going through,” Daane said.

Eric Wetzel says he still feels as though he’s in a state of shock but knows the family will have to sit down and talk about the future of the family farm.

“I know my children, would like to farm, but there’s some pretty big decisions ahead of us,” he said.