State

Hundreds of homes damaged when tornado hits Woodhaven Lakes campground in Sublette

SUBLETTE – Hundreds of homes in Woodhaven Lakes, a private campground north of Sublette, are gone, destroyed Monday night when an EF-2 tornado ripped through parts of Lee County, officials say.

The campground has 6,144 lots, and about 300 properties were occupied when the tornado touched down.

No one has been reported missing or dead, and only one person was taken to the hospital with minor injuries, authorities say.

As search efforts unfolded through Monday night and early Tuesday morning – a search to ensure that no campers were unaccounted for – two people were found trapped inside a trailer, but neither was injured, and both were removed without incident.

Officials don't know exactly how many people were on the grounds when the tornado struck just after 8 p.m. Monday, nor do they know the exact number of homes damaged, but Sublette Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Schultz said Tuesday afternoon that he estimates about one-third of the properties sustained damage.

The most destruction happened in sections 9, 13, and 14, where National Weather Service analysts confirmed the touchdown of an EF-2 tornado, with wind speeds averaging 130 mph.

More than 80 search-and-rescue workers streamed in from Chicago today to help first responders survey the damage and make sure all the resort's residents were accounted for.

Officials say residents got about 20 to 30 minutes of advance warning before the storm hit, which meant that most were able to get safely to sturdy structures, mostly comfort stations, throughout the campground.

Jeff Sus has been coming to Woodhaven Lakes since he was a kid in the ’80s, and he’s never experienced anything like what he saw last night.

He and his wife, Andrea, 30, of Batavia, have been staying at their cabin in section 21 since early May.

Cellphone reception in Woodhaven Lakes is bad, so the only way the Suses could monitor the storm was to watch it out their front door.

And then, the sirens went off.

They and their 2-year-old German shepherd, Zeke, made their way to a comfort station, where they hunkered down with about 50 other people as the tornado raged through the campground.

On a normal day, the above-ground comfort station, one of 14 at Woodhaven, is a bathhouse and restroom for guests.

Monday night, it served as a bunker.

"They’re the safest structures on the grounds,” Andrea said. “We had been watching the weather out the window pretty much the whole night, and then the lightning started. It got very still, and then it was super loud outside. It sounded like an airplane.”

The crowd tried to keep things light, making small talk and keeping the many children in the structure calm until the storm blew through.

"The worst moment was this morning, realizing how bad it was,” Jeff said. “Our place fared pretty well compared to a lot of others.”

"It’s a miracle,” Andrea said.

After the weather cleared, the couple took Zeke and went to check on friends.

Although officials disagree, Jeff and Andrea thought section 22, about a quarter-mile from their section, was the worst hit in the whole campground. They estimated about 300 to 400 trailers were completely demolished.

NWS analyst Victor Gesini said section 22 had winds between 80 and 100 mph, mild compared to the 130-mph gusts that ravaged sections just to the east.

"There were several small, embedded circulations in there where you could get bursts of damage greater than that," he said, which might account for the destruction witnessed by the Suses.

Greg Connelly, 39, and his parents, Diane, 67, and Michael, 68, who have homes in section 20, agreed with the Suses that section 22 seemed to be the hardest-hit.

The Connellys were getting ice cream at a shop inside the grounds when their cellphones started erupting with tornado warning messages. The three, who have been coming to Woodhaven Lakes since 1984, stayed put along with dozens of other people until the storm passed.

Like the Suses, the Connellys said the severity of the event didn't really hit them until daylight, when they were able to survey the wreckage.

Once the storm cleared last night, "all the trees were down, so you couldn't see the trailers," Diane said. "But to me it was like going through a green tunnel of leaves. You couldn't see the devastation until today."

Their home, with Diane's newly installed stained-glass windows, was spared but for some minor roof damage.

For Greg, a Chicago police officer, the neighborhood in the storm's aftermath was one of the most surreal things he's ever seen.

"Seeing trailers flipped over, that really tripped me up," he said. "It was interesting. We didn't think it was a tornado originally. And then just us walking by ... just to see that it's gone, it's just ... the fields and acres of trees that are gone, it just doesn't look like the same place."

The four pine trees that Diane and Micheal's nephew planted years ago in front of their property – one for each of their children – fell victim to the wind and rain, collapsing on top of Greg's car.

On Tuesday, they watched as their friend, Austin Morgan, took a chainsaw to their trunks.

Morgan was one of many volunteers who flooded into the campground as soon as the storm passed Monday night. He, along with residents and first responders, worked until about 4 a.m. clearing the roads before they finally took a break.

As of a 3 p.m. news conference staged inside the campground, Lee County Sheriff John Simonton still hadn't had a chance to sleep; he worked all night Monday and all day Tuesday.

As devastating as the damage was, Simonton said, it could have been worse.

"We were extremely lucky that it happened when it did," he said. "We were extremely lucky that there were very few injuries. If there's anything we can be thankful for, it's that."

Schultz, the Sublette assistant chief, said that on a holiday weekend, there could be close to 15,000 people on the grounds.

For now, owners will not be allowed onto the grounds unless they already live there, and those who choose to leave won't be allowed back in until further notice, Schultz said.

The current estimate for when residents will be allowed back inside is about a week.

The American Red Cross has set up a shelter at the Ellice Dinges Center at 202 S. West St. in Sublette, and is providing food, coffee, and water for first responders and displaced residents. Volunteers will stay there till they're no longer needed, the agency said.

Emergency crews are asking that people interested in volunteering sit tight for now. As damage assessments are completed in the coming days and weeks, volunteer needs will be announced on departments' Facebook pages, officials said.

By midday Tuesday officials could confirm that two tornadoes touched down in Lee County. The first, northwest of Harmon, touched down in a field. It was rated as an EF-1 with winds estimated at 110 mph.

It lifted east of Harmon before reforming and touching down northwest of Woodhaven Lakes, the weather service's Gesini said.

The path, they think, was somewhere between one-quarter and one-half-mile at its widest, he said.

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