High Wind Event - November 10th, 1998

Twenty-three years to the date, a massive storm struck the western Great Lakes region on November 10th with damaging winds similar in destructive scale to the storm that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975. 

Powerful synoptic-scale southwest winds raked Wisconsin again on the 10th of November in 1998 as a deep low pressure system moved northeast through Minnesota to Lake Superior. Duluth, MN, set a new all-time record low barometric pressure of 28.45 inches, which is similar hurricane values.  Peak wind gusts in the "dry slot" were generally 55 to 80 mph, with most winds in the 60 to 70 mph range. Five locations had gusts of 80 mph or higher: the La Crosse National Weather Service Office on top of Grandad Bluff (93 mph), Waterford in Racine County (81 mph), Salem in Kenosha County (81 mph), Belgium in Ozaukee County (80 mph), and St. Francis in Milwaukee County (80 mph). A gust of 87 mph was recorded on top of the 15-story Atmospheric and Oceanic Studies Building on the UW-Madison campus.

Back in 1975, the Minneapolis Star newspaper reported wind gusts of 75 miles per hour on Lake Superior which produced waves large enough to sink the 729-foot freighter in a matter of minutes, taking 26,000 tons of taconite pellets and 29 men to the bottom of Lake Superior.

Tragedy resulted again this year with four deaths attributed to the storm and at least 6 others injured as the powerful winds blew down tree branches, power poles and lines, street lights, road signs, and commercial signs. Hundreds of structures sustained varying degrees of damage, many buildings were completely destroyed. Numerous vehicles were dented by felled trees or branches; and there were many reports of semi tractor-trailers blown over on major highways. Many farmers reported that dozens of acres of corn were damaged as the wind gusts pushed the stalks down to the ground. Total monetary losses have not been determined, but it is safe to say that the total will be in excess of $10 million dollars.

A 16 year old boy in Kenosha Co., was electrocuted in his car when a wind gust toppled a power line/pole onto his vehicle. A 50 year old women in Columbia County drowned in the Wisconsin River when a wind gust pushed her into the river while loading a boat onto a trailer with waves was too turbulent for a rescue. An 87 year-old West Allis (Milwaukee County) man died from injuries after a wind gust ripped a door from his hand as he was opening it, causing him to lose his balance and fall headfirst on the porch. In Door County, a 67 year-old women died from injuries after a wind gust knocked her down with her head hitting concrete.

The high winds started at about 8 A.M. in the southwest part of the state, engulfed the entire state by noon, and persisted until midnight when the wind gusts finally dropped below 60 mph over the eastern tier of Wisconsin counties. It wasn't until about 3 or 4 A.M. on November 11th that the gusts dropped below 50 mph!
Energy for the winds was derived from a deep low pressure that moved northeast through central Iowa, to near Minneapolis, and then through northwest Wisconsin. Meteorologists also noted that the jet stream was located right over Wisconsin during the day on November 10th. The intensity of the low pressure system coupled with the jet stream location allowed for a transfer, through mixing, of higher-momentum air in the middle and upper reaches of the atmosphere down into the lower atmosphere right over Wisconsin. The WSR-88D Doppler radar at the Sullivan NWS Office measured sustained winds of 75 mph only 2 thousand feet above the ground, and sustained winds of 140 mph at 15,000 feet above the ground!

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