WHEATLAND, WIS. — The tornado that destroyed Michelle Arena's home here last January chased the family for months in their nightmares.
When a big storm came their way a month later, the panic-stricken mom packed her three children into the car and tried to outrun it. Her 8-year-old son Jacob endured vomiting spells over six months. And 9-year-old Catie relived the disaster for weeks in her dreams.
"We were so spooked," said Arena, 36, who huddled with the children in a basement storage room while the Jan. 7 tornadoes, which swept through southern Wisconsin and other parts of the Midwest, ripped the house off its foundation.
Miraculously, no one in her community was seriously injured. Nearly a year later, the storm remains an enigma.
What began as an unseasonably warm day quickly turned dangerous. In Milwaukee, thermometers reached 63, the highest temperature Wisconsin had recorded in January since 1871.
The surge of warm, humid air combined with a strong updraft of wind that created a jet-stream effect, and the stage was set for one of the Midwest's most destructive winter tornadoes in recorded history. Funnel clouds wreaked havoc in much of northern Illinois and Wisconsin's Kenosha County -- where damages were estimated at $18 million.
In Wisconsin, it was only the second January tornado in nearly six decades.
In the small farming town of Wheatland, 25 homes were not salvageable. All but two have been rebuilt, said town Chairman Jeff Butler.
The year-old Wheatland Tornado Recovery Committee plans an anniversary luncheon Sunday. The group distributed most of the $90,000 raised to help the families most in need. Remaining funds will be parceled out this spring to cover the expense of replanting trees and lawns, Butler said.
"A lot of people didn't know their neighbors. But after this tornado, it worked out that everyone was friends," Butler said.
Along with the homes destroyed, the tornadoes wiped out any disbelief that such storms could occur in winter, said meteorologist Mark Gehring with the National Weather Service's Milwaukee branch.
"People were flooding Kenosha with 911 calls because they didn't believe the tornado warnings. They were calling to ask if it was real," said Gehring, who was part of a team that surveyed storm damage.
"People did go to their basements, but it sure seems like they hesitated. It was January, so it was a tremendous surprise," Gehring said.
Among those whose initial skepticism nearly cost him his life was Matt Schneider, 46, who lives across the street from the Arenas.
Schneider casually turned on the television to watch the news when his fiance called to warn him about the storm. It was only after he glanced out his living room window and saw the swirling funnel cloud bearing down that he hollered for his yellow Labrador, Max, and the two raced downstairs.
"It's a good thing he listened for a change," Schneider said.
The funnel cloud "was coming right at me," he said. "Seconds later, all hell broke loose." Schneider emerged from the basement a few minutes later to find only the kitchen island and a few toilets remaining.
He and his fiance now carry weather radios and listen keenly to news of impending storms. Insurance covered the approximately $350,000 it cost to rebuild his house. He and Max moved back in about six weeks ago.
Connie Baer, 45, also shrugged off the tornado warnings. She started to prepare snacks after sending her four children into the basement, thinking "you don't have tornadoes in January." But she quickly joined the children when the air pressure changed and her ears popped.
"By the time we got really scared, it was almost over. It really was amazingly fast. It was complete devastation. It just was a whole different scene looking at the neighborhood compared with what I had seen five minutes earlier," said Baer, whose home needed a new roof and siding.
Baer is reminded of the storm every time she looks behind her home. More than a dozen trees were upended and remain scattered around the 4-acre lot.