Greg Peck: Remembering storm that socked Janesville 15 years ago this month
My wife, Cheryl, and I had breakfast Wednesday with a group of friends from our church who served the former Roosevelt School Breakfast Club. We still gather to dine and catch up on life each month.
Cheryl and I picked up Fred McCann for the meal out, and as we drove to the restaurant, we talked about the tornado that hit Lake Geneva on Wednesday. The Gazette chronicled the damage Thursday.
Our discussion reminded Fred of the windstorm that slammed Janesville years ago. Then it dawned on me—I knew that storm blew in 15 years ago this month because I wrote an essay about it a few years ago. That essay has never been published. I'm offering it here today for your reading pleasure and to perhaps jog memories.
One Odd Oak
On a corner lot in Janesville, just a few blocks from downtown, stands an oak tree.
It's neither a white oak nor a red oak; neither a pin oak nor a bur oak. Instead, it's a black oak. As oaks go, it's on the young side of middle age.
Oaks are hardy, usually deciduous and considered great for shading yards. Even their leaves are tough—clinging long after most have fallen from birches, ashes and maples. One day last January, most of the jagged-edged leaves still clung to this particular oak on this particular corner. Others dotted new-fallen snow like a massive polka-dot blanket lacking in vivid color.
Some oaks live more than 200 years. One of the oldest on record is the Seven Sisters Oak in Louisiana. It measures 37 feet in diameter, has a crown spreading 150 feet and is estimated to be 1,000 years old.
That's amazing, but I find the oak just two blocks from our house equally remarkable. It stands as an example of the mysterious workings of Mother Nature.
I walk past this oak with my cairn terrier every morning. Often, we stroll past before dawn, and Molly sometimes stops and sniffs the fire hydrant on that corner. If she does, I turn and gaze at that tree and imagine the story it could tell.
This is no ordinary oak. Walk or drive past most months and pay it half a glance, and you'd never notice how odd it is. When leaves fill its branches, you must stand directly below this oak to see its strange growth pattern.
If I'd owned the house on that corner, I'd have cut down the tree long ago. The woman who has lived there many years, however, let it grow. It seems like a wise choice today because it's thriving. If only this tree could talk, it could tell quite the tale of a Saturday more than a decade ago.
The date was Aug. 5, 2000. Few longtime Janesville residents would remember that date, but most recall what happened that day.
My wife, Cheryl, and I were enjoying a family golf outing in Oconomowoc, about an hour away. We were finishing our round that afternoon as a storm rolled our way. The sky to the west grew dark and foreboding, foretelling the rain that would chase us into the clubhouse. It's a good thing we fled because no one would have dared to be caught on the course when lightning flashed from the blackness.
We sat at the bar and watched television reports of the storm tracking through southern Wisconsin. Soon after it passed, Cheryl's niece Suanne got a phone call.
“You'd better hurry home,” a friend told her. “One of your trees is on your fence, and another big branch landed on your deck.”
We stayed and finished our outing the next day before heading home.
I drove into Janesville from the northeast and noticed no evidence of the storm. We made a stop before arriving home, however, and I heard an ominous sound—the familiar and unmistakable whine of chain saws.
“Oh, oh,” I told Cheryl. “That doesn't sound good.”
We made it home OK, steering clear of a few small branches lying here and there in the streets. When we pulled into our driveway, however, we knew we were on the edge of devastation.
We had no electricity, and a massive elm had fallen in the neighbor's yard across the street. From our corner lot, we peered down the side street. Trees were down all over.
We gathered sticks and limbs from our yard and filled four large bags.
Then we went for a walk down that street. The scene was hard to believe. Trees had fallen in most every yard. A block away, a trampoline was folded across a backyard power line.
Newspaper reporters fanned out to chronicle the damage, including flattened sheds, cornfields and trees throughout much of Rock County. A recreational vehicle and semitrailer truck rolled on the Interstate.
Winds up to 75 mph shredded the central city. Instead of a tornado, meteorologists described the storm as a downburst packing straight-line winds. It dumped buckets of rain as it roared through Janesville. It sheared off dozens of power poles, uprooted or snapped hundreds of trees like twigs and left more than 17,000 homes without power. With utility lines tangled in downed trees, police issued a curfew to keep people safe.
A woman who lives blocks from our home described sitting in her sunroom when she felt the outdoor air shift.
“I could feel the momentum of the wind all around me,” she told a reporter. “My son looked at me and said, 'I'm scared.' Then we went to the basement.”
Moments later, a huge tree crashed through her sunroom roof.
“It was all over in about two minutes. It all happened so fast.”
Wall clocks stopped at 3:53 p.m.
Crews spent much of a week cutting up and removing every downed tree and fallen limb, and restoring power. Amazingly, injuries were few. Miraculously, no one died. When the chain saws finally fell silent, life returned to normal, though the urban forest was much thinner in a community once known as “Bower City,” before the plague of Dutch elm disease.
I returned to taking daily dog walks. On one such jaunt, I noticed a crack in the crotch of a mature ash just a few doors from our home.
“I think I'd cut it down,” I told the homeowner, though he instead had a tree service drill a hole and insert a large bolt to secure it.
On our walk, the look of that young oak just two blocks away was alarming. The storm sheared off the crown. It was as if someone used a giant blade to slice it parallel to the ground, just above the first circle of limbs. What remained looked ugly, mutilated, and useless. I'd have made firewood of it.
The woman who lives there, however, let it stand. Since then, an amazing thing happened. Tiny shoots emerged from that circle of branches and reached for the sky. Years passed, and those young stems grew into sturdy limbs. Eventually, the tree filled out and today looks as normal as any other tree, if only you give it a cursory glance.
Stand below it and gaze up, however, and you'll see it's anything but normal.
The main trunk, about as big around as a car's wheel, ends suddenly when it reaches that first row of branches. What continues are actually three trunks that sprouted from thick, almost horizontal limbs. They make the tree's center, when bare, look like a giant, misshapen fork standing on end. The fattest of these tines is more than two feet off center from the trunk that rises from the earth. Other branches have grown strong and large, reaching skyward from odd origins, as well.
I admit that I was wrong about that tree. I've learned that where I see a sore spot or an oddity, nature sees opportunity. The tree stands today, resolute and stout, as oaks are known to do. It's a silent monument to that stormy Saturday more than a decade ago, and to the mysterious but magical wonders of Mother Nature.