There is no longer much evidence that a tornado touched down on the northwestern side of Verona five years ago – unless you count the colors of house siding.
Prior to the early morning hours of Tuesday, June 17, 2014, much of the neighborhood’s homes were a muted shade of neutral colors. And many of them still are – minus those in the pathway of the EF-3 tornado, which have since been repaired and painted in much bolder tones – reds, greens and blues.
Shannon and Ryan Meyer, who live at the corner of Lone Pine Way and Tamarack Lane, were among the residents who took advantage of the forced remodel.
When their roof was ripped off as the couple and their two daughters were still sleeping upstairs, they could feel raindrops on their heads as they fled to the basement. Even though they went with a deep red when they replaced the roof, they keep mementos of the old home front and center.
“We have photos of the damage on the living room wall, and our daughters drew pictures of the home,” Shannon said.
In the five years that have passed, a lot of healing has taken place. It’s not just the mended roofs, replaced glass, growing young trees and renovated elementary school, it’s also in the people who remain spooked when the wind picks up but have, for the most part, seen their lives go back to how they were.
No injuries or deaths were reported, but the storm did massive amounts of damage in both the town and city of Verona.
In addition to the $4 million needed to repair Country View Elementary School, there were 19 homes suffering major damage and eight families temporarily dislocated after their homes were deemed uninhabitable. In all, 84 homes sustained some sort of damage, including a pair on Tamarack Way that had insurance claims topping a combined half-million dollars, American Family insurance agent Brian Wagner said.
Between Verona and the west side of Madison, Dane County Emergency Management estimated the storms had racked up a collective $15 million in damage that week, spread throughout 250 homes and businesses.
The aftermath of the tornado brought in more than 100 police officers from 16 nearby precincts to help with security and ensure that people who weren’t supposed to be in the area after the storm stayed away.
The storm also brought a flood of help – in some cases, contractors were on the scene of damaged properties within 48 hours, and family and friends arrived with chainsaws and extra hands to help clean up tons of tree debris that littered the area.
The scene city planning director Adam Sayre saw that morning when he took building inspectors around the neighborhood was one of cohesivenesses among residents, law enforcement and city and town officials.
“I remember thinking it was very well organized when I got over there,” he recalled. “It wasn’t chaotic, and neighbors were helping each other.”
Some of the remaining effect of the tornado lies in city and town emergency practices.
After the tornado forced Wright to use the training he’d received as a volunteer ambulance driver, he said the town has been better prepared to deal with unforeseeable weather events.
That was tested last year, with the massive flooding in various parts of the town in mid-August.
City of Verona police also took the initiative after the storm to evaluate their emergency preparedness and train on rapid response techniques, Lt. David Dresser told the Press.
At the time of the tornado, he said, Dane County was in the middle of implementing a new communications system, and the department’s own system was knocked out the night of the tornado, leaving officers with no ability to communicate with one another over radio.
It was an experience that “really tested them,” Dresser said.
“You’ve got a moment of crisis and the radio system’s not working,” he said. “We believe the incident made us a better agency. We’re able to apply skills that previously were just training concepts.”
Some residents who lived through the storm have been taking extra precautions five years later, too.
Phil Hoechst, who lives on the corner of Tamarack Lane and Lone Pine Way, said he and his wife, Sara, never used to be the kind of people who took weather warnings very seriously.
For some reason, Sara said, they decided to take their then-2 year old son Harrison to the basement for shelter that night, which obviously was a good decision.
Now, she said, “If there’s a warning, we always go in the basement.”
Finding a way to move on has taken a lot of effort and time in some cases.
Town of Verona resident Cindy Bong only had five days in June 2014 where her property wasn’t teeming with people doing repairs.
For the first part of the month, she and her husband Roger were finishing renovations on their home. After June 17, her lawn was full of people who showed up to help them take care of their 18 trees in their front yard that had fallen as a result of the storm.
“We probably had 20 people over here helping us cut up trees already and drag brush to the curbside,” she said. “We were fortunate, because we had older children … and they had a lot of friends, and many of those friends used to come here and hang out when the kids were younger.
“Many of them were willing to come and help, and many of them knew how to use a chainsaw,” she added.
Bong’s home was deemed uninhabitable after one of the trees in the front yard fell into her living room. She and Roger had lived in their home when it had been remodeled in the months prior, but this time, they were forced out and lived with their daughter’s family in Fitchburg until Thanksgiving.
They were back at their home every day after the storm to clean up. That included their wedding anniversary, the day after the storm, when they cut up wood and ate pizza out of the bed of a pickup truck.
For Wagner, while much of the debris was cleaned up within a few weeks, the recovery process lasted much longer.
At the time of the tornado, he was in Omaha City with his father, attending the College World Series. His phone began to light up in the middle of the night, he said, instantly cutting his vacation short, and on the drive home, he fielded calls from homeowners who were calling in claims.
The claims process lasted for more than a year, as adjusters needed to be contacted and repair work had to be contracted, but Wagner said he believes for the most part, people were happy with the repairs.
“I think they did a pretty good job, considering the number of people that were affected that were our American Family clients,” he said. “The biggest holdup with the whole process was getting enough contractors in there ... there’s only so many contractors around.”
A neighborhood, healed
For Rob Davis, whose garage was “sheared” right off of his home on the night of the tornado, he’s seen his family recover well.
At the time, he was working late and was the only one awake in his home on Tamarack Lane.
When the sirens went off, he and his family headed to the basement, where they watched TV together until the power went out.
Davis said he distinctly remembers the train-like roar of the wind as the tornado hit their home, then leaving his family downstairs as he went to investigate with a flashlight.
When he opened the door to his garage, he said, he saw the night sky.
Davis’s family was back in their home by Labor Day, and since then, he said, life has gone back to normal.
“We were back into our house before school started … I would say it was relatively normal by then,” he said. “Probably somewhat longer because we were still replacing all the contents that were lost.”
One of his children began seeing a counselor after the storm, Davis said, but since then, alertness has replaced fear for his family.
“He’s recovered very well, but he definitely had some emotional trauma from it,” he said. “I think we’re OK, but we’re a little bit more alert to it.”
For the Meyerses, their lives went back to normal as soon as they could move back into their home, Shannon said.
In the hours and days after the storm, she said, there were moments when she felt scared and powerless.
“I always want to believe that it’ll be OK, and we can fix it,” she said. “I realized in that moment we couldn’t fix this right away.”
Their daughters, then a kindergartener and a third grader, were initially scared after seeing their house without a roof, Ryan said, but were fine a week later when they took joy in the prospect of getting to redesign their rooms.
In addition to the photos of what their home looked like before the tornado, and the drawings from their daughters, the Meyers have since added two more things to their home since the storm.
“We have two weather radios now,” Ryan said.