April 10, 2011, was a record-setting day for Wisconsin weather. Fifteen tornadoes were confirmed on that date in communities around the state, the most ever recorded on an April day.
In Merrill, it had been a balmy April Sunday. Then the weather turned ugly in the late afternoon, as it became apparent that Merrill was right in the path of that storm. The National Weather Service was predicting that a storm capable of producing a tornado would reach Merrill shortly after 6:20 p.m.
An EF3 tornado, the strongest in Lincoln County history and the most powerful to strike in Wisconsin that day, hit Merrill almost exactly at the time predicted by the NWS.
“Before I started seeing debris, it got dead calm and the air got heavy,” said Andy Lee, who watched the twister approach from the front yard of his soon-to-be demolished ROW Road home.
Touching down first on Joe Snow Road, the tornado traveled its northeasterly route through Merrill’s industrial park, neighborhoods along Airport Road and Hillside Drive, across Hwy. 51 and County Rd. K, and on toward Gleason. Within about 20 minutes the storm had come and gone, leaving behind an unbelievable swath of destruction. Several business buildings, several dozen homes and thousands of trees were damaged. Amazingly, not one life was lost and only a few injuries were reported.
“For being unlucky, we were pretty lucky,” said Mike Handlin, whose home in the Evergreen Heights subdivision was destroyed.
Law enforcement, emergency responders and relief organizations sprang into action. Citizens pitched in to help with the initial cleanup process. Just getting the roads clear of fallen trees was a major task.
Over the next few months, homeowners and businesses went about the work of cleaning up the mess left by the tornado and rebuilding shattered structures. The damage was initially estimated at more than $11 million.
Assistance efforts from the Merrill community and beyond immediately got into gear. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were on scene to provide support to the victims. St. John Lutheran Church of Merrill offered their kitchen and volunteer cooks to provide meals that were distributed to victims and clean up workers.
Thousands of volunteers donated their time to help with cleanup projects in the tornado damaged areas. Those efforts continued for months as volunteers stepped forward from the Merrill community, surrounding areas and beyond. In April alone, volunteers clocked over 5,000 man hours.
Monetary donations also poured in as major funds were established by the Merrill Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Merrill Area United Way.
Five years later, the scars left by the tornado are still evident around the Merrill area. It will take decades for the trees to return to their former glory and some lots remain vacant where buildings once stood. But, for the most part, homes and businesses have been rebuilt and Merrill has carried on.