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Neighbors maintain close bond one year after tornado

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TOWN OF WHEATON (WQOW)- It's been one year since an EF-3 tornado tore through Wheaton and Elk Mound, destroying homes and injuring three people.

On September 24, 2019 trees filled the landscape of the tight-knit Wheaton neighborhood just off Highway 29. That changed just before 8 p.m.

"[It was] just like somebody ripped something out of your chest," Wheaton resident Mike Peterson said. "Every time you ran into a neighbor, you were just happy to see they were alive."

The tornado touched down near Elk Mound just before 7:50 p.m. on September 24, 2019, and carved a path roughly five and a half miles long in the 10 minutes it was on the ground. The worst damage occurred in Chippewa County, in the town of Wheaton near Highway 29.

Packing estimated winds up to 150 miles per hour, it was the first EF-3 tornado to hit the state of Wisconsin to during the month of September since 2002. It was also the latest in the season to occur since 1971.

Wheaton resident Luke Heier was out of town on a business trip when it hit.

"I got a call from my neighbor Mike, and got the news from him," Heier said. "I caught the next flight home."

He said what he saw when he got back was shocking.

"It was just surreal coming back to, something that I didn't even recognize," said Heier. "The entire neighborhood completely changed. I mean, every tree was just completely gone. The roads were barely passable. You know, my entire lot, it was hard to just make it out at all."

He lost almost everything on his property, including his house. In the year since the tornado, Heier has rebuilt a new home in a different spot on the same property. You can still see the spot where his old home sat, framed by only a few surviving, warped trees.

The site of Heier's former Wheaton home.

Heier said rebuilding was a long process, but said he was finally able to move back in about a month ago.

"The one thing that hasn't changed are the people here. We're all still close friends," said Heier. "That's what actually made me stay on this lot, and not move out of the area."

While many have since rebuilt and moved on, it's safe to say that the landscape of this neighborhood has been permanently changed. Many residents chose to rebuild, but some neighbors did move out, citing the cost and length of time needed to rebuild.

Wheaton Fire and Rescue will be hosting its Fired Up Day event Saturday starting at 4 p.m. which will feature a slideshow of pictures from the tornado.

Jess Langlois

Jess Langlois is the weekend meteorologist and weekday multi-media journalist for News 18. She joined us in July of 2019.

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