1 killed, 2 dozen hurt as tornado levels Wis. mobile home park

Ronald Blomberg comforts his fiancee, Marissa Rhoades
Ronald Blomberg comforts his fiancee, Marissa Rhoades amid the devastation of the Prairie Lake Estates mobile home park near Chetek, Wis., on Wednesday.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated: 1:46 p.m. | Posted: 5:42 a.m.

Residents of a northwestern Wisconsin mobile home park struggled to pick up the pieces Wednesday after a tornado ripped through the park around dinnertime Tuesday, killing one person and injuring more than two dozen.

Authorities assessing the widespread damage at Prairie Lake Estates mobile home park near Chetek, Wis., about 100 miles from St. Paul, said they were amazed there weren't more dead and injured.

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Tornado damage in Barron County, Wisconsin.
Tornado damage in Barron County, Wisconsin.
Courtesy of Barron County Sheriff's Department

"It's a miracle when you see the total destruction in there, it's a miracle," said Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald. "The outpouring of support has been tremendous. And we're trying to coordinate our efforts now to get people what they need, to get them new housing, water, help. We've got all kinds of people helping and it's been awesome."

Fitzgerald identified the man who died as Eric Gavin, 45, a resident of the park who was found outside his damaged home. He was a driver for Jennie-O Turkey. Hormel Foods, which owns Jennie-O, said in a statement it was "incredibly saddened" to learn of his death.

Gavin's neighbor, 27-year-old Ronald Blomberg, said he got out just in time before his home was destroyed.

Tornado damage at Prairie Lake Estate Mobile Park
Tornado damage at Prairie Lake Estate Mobile Park near Chetek, Wis., Wednesday, May 17, 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

"If me and my fiancee would have stayed 10 more minutes, we would have gotten hit," he recalled. "I got a phone call from my old man, and he said 'Ronnie, you got to get out of there. Got to get out of there.'"

First responders searched through the rubble overnight. The Barron County Sheriff's Department says all residents of the mobile home park are accounted for.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was expected to be on site Wednesday afternoon to survey the damage.

Tornado relief workers are asking the public not to bring any more food or clothing donations to an emergency shelter set up for tornado victims, which served 30 to 50 people on Tuesday. The shelter in Cameron, Wis., has already received many donations of goods.

Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald
Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald at the scene of fatal tornado touchdown near Chetek, Wis.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Monetary donations are still needed said, American Red Cross volunteer Tracy Nelson.

"Whether it be having a house destroyed or if you're out of power, you're more than welcome to come here," Nelson said. "We have food, we have clothing and we also have a warm place to stay."

People who lost their homes are also staying with relatives or friends, or in hotels, she added.

Darrin Seever, son of the park owner, said authorities worked late into the night accounting for everyone on a list of residents numbering about 150.

There was no severe weather shelter in the park, although authorities activated Barron County's emergency sirens about 25 minutes before the tornado struck. Authorities also activated a text and call alert to residents in the area.

Tornado damage at Prairie Lake Estate Mobile Park
Tornado damage at Prairie Lake Estate Mobile Park near Chetek, Wis., Wednesday, May 17, 2017.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Authorities said there was widespread damage elsewhere, including a large turkey barn, although the sheriff said other homes had been mostly spared.

The National Weather Service issued its first tornado warning at 4:39 p.m. Tuesday. Funnel clouds were reported in the area as early as 4:50 p.m., then another warning at 5:05 p.m. Fitzgerald said storm sirens were activated at 5 p.m. The first 911 calls came in around 5:15 p.m.

Weather spotters say the tornado moved through Chetek around 5:35 p.m., enough lead time to seek shelter, although some Prairie Lake Estates residents were still in their homes when the tornado hit.

Mark Tyson said he and his wife Robin were huddled behind a living room chair as the storm hit Tuesday evening when an entire wall of their mobile home suddenly came flying at them.

"I thought we were done," said Tyson. Shards of glass were flying at them like bullets, Tyson told the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. "When your house comes apart like that, there's no place to go. I thought this is it."

Fitzgerald, the county sheriff, on Wednesday recalled his thoughts as he pulled up to the flattened mobile home park Tuesday night.

"The worst," he said of his feelings. "I mean, I just thought, man, we're going to be digging for people for days."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.