SIREN, Wis. (AP) — A fierce thunderstorm swept through a normally rural Wisconsin county that was packed with holiday campers, toppling trees that killed an 11-year-old girl, blowing ashore boats and injuring more than three dozen people, officials said Saturday.
The storm moved across Minnesota and Wisconsin on Friday, packing winds approaching 80 mph and hail as large as softballs. In northern Wisconsin's Burnett County, at least 37 people went to hospitals after the storm toppled hundreds of trees and left several thousand utility customers without power.
A search was underway Saturday along the St. Croix River for missing canoeists, the Wisconsin Emergency Management Office reported. Boats were upended and blown ashore in the area, while an airport hangar in neighboring Douglas County collapsed.
The storm came at one of the worst times of the year for rural Burnett County: a summer holiday weekend, when the area's lakes and rivers attract tens of thousands of visitors, said Julie Kittleson of the county's emergency response center.
"The population here is about 15,000. But this weekend there's probably about 80,000," she said of the county, which is about 90 miles northeast of Minneapolis.
Law enforcement reported the girl who died was killed when a tree fell on her at a campground in the country, though no other details have been released.
The storm moved into southwest Minnesota on Friday afternoon and took nearly six hours to pass through before slipping into northwest Wisconsin, said Matt Friedlein, a National Weather Service meteorologist. The bad weather had moved out by Saturday morning, when skies were clear and sunny with temperatures in the 80s.
Anita Frase, the owner of Bay Park Resort & Campground in Trego, said she and the resort's 300 visitors knew a storm was coming but they didn't expect it to hit so swiftly and with such intensity.
"About 9 o'clock the winds picked up and within five minutes it was upon us. Those were probably the darkest skies I've ever seen up here," she said, adding that the storm knocked down several trees, with some landing on vehicles. "A lot of people were very nervous. Some of the kids were crying."
Workers were also rattled at a Grantsburg store near the St. Croix River that rents canoes, kayaks and gear. Store clerk Aimee Van Tatenhove said the wind was so strong and loud that no one realized a medium-sized tree had fallen into the roof until employees went outside.
In Minnesota, a driver was injured when hail the size of a baseball hit a vehicle's windshield, said Meeker County Sheriff Jeff Norlin. Roofs were torn away in several towns.
"Some communities had multiple passes at this storm — including golfball-, baseball- and softball-sized hail," said McLeod County Emergency Management Director Kevin Mathews, who said two tractor-trailers were blown off local highways.
Two Minnesota state parks sustained tree damage so heavy that a conservation officer who was making sure no campers were in the area had to abandon his vehicle and hike through on foot, said Chris Niskanen of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
He urged people to stay out of Camden State Park and St. Croix State Park, which are technically closed because of the state's government shutdown but could still attract campers because they're public land. He cautioned that some trees may have fallen over but gotten hung up on other trees.
"It's an issue of health and safety," he said. "Since those parks are closed they don't have the personnel to go in and remove (the trees). People need to know there's a danger if they start wandering around."