Summers of Destruction: 1984 - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Summers of Destruction: 1984


BARNEVELD (WKOW)--Sometimes a tragedy can takeover a town's identity; the way Hurricane Katrina redefined New Orleans and the way the 1984 tornado redefined Barneveld.

"The first 5-6 years after the Barneveld tornado, I think most people in town were pretty jumpy about weather events," says Keith Hurlburt, Iowa County Emergency Management Coordinator and former Barneveld fire chief.

And, just like that tornado shaped the town, it also became part of the people who lived through it.

"Ya, it plays a big part in why I do what I do," says Hurlburt.

In 1984, he was a 20-year old with a wife and young son. Like most people in Barneveld, they were in bed when the twister hit in the middle of the night, with no warning. Keith had just gotten up to close a window.

"I was looking out a window when it hit, but it was very dark. A lot of lightning... I could see a neighbor's home go down."

"Remember looking up and the walls and ceiling were gone and it was raining. It's like, what just happened?" remembers Jeff Jenson, who was also in his twenties, living in the middle of town in a second floor apartment.

"It was just a mess. You didn't know where anything was. You could hear people hollering for help. It was really scary. I was on the fire department and the first thing that came to mind was to get to the fire station so we could help. I got here and the whole building had collapsed."

The reason there was no warning at 12:40 that morning was because Doppler radar technology wasn't available yet. Something you can now get on your home computer would have shown the huge tornado hiding coming in the dark.

Nine people were killed in the June 8 tornado. The F5 twister was the biggest to hit the United States in the 1980's. It did a total of $40 million in damage; $25 million in Barneveld alone. About 90 percent of the town was destroyed.

"One of the memories that I have of that night is the smell of propane gas. And to this day, I still don't like the smell of propane gas. There was the very strong odor of that in town," remembers Keith Hurlburt, whose experience led him to a career in emergency services.

The current Barneveld fire chief, Jeff Jenson, on the department since before the 1984 tornado, says there's a heightened awareness that comes with surviving.

"You see a storm coming, you always wonder: is it going to be nasty? It's something we've learned to live with and be prepared for out here."

Every single fire chief and emergency manager we talked to for this and our Stoughton tornado story said your best protection against severe storms is to have a weather radio in your home that goes off when there's an alert in your area.


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