40th Anniversary of “The Storm” in Eau Claire

The 1980 storm swept through Western Wisconsin.
The 1980 storm swept through Western Wisconsin.(WEAU)
Published: Jul. 15, 2020 at 5:38 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 15, 2020 at 8:41 AM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - Wednesday, July 15 marks 40 years since what most people refer to as “The Storm” swept through western Wisconsin. The windstorm known as a derecho left damage in a 40-mile wide stretch right through the city of Eau Claire.

If you lived in Eau Claire during the 1980 storm, you likely have your own stories from this day, 40 years ago. But for those that weren't living here or weren't even born yet, here is a look back at the historical July night.

“It was definitely a wild night, that’s for sure, “said Bob Zirngible, a former radio DJ in Eau Claire. Zirngible was working the overnight DJ shift at WEAQ/WIAL radio the night of the storm. “As it hit Minneapolis and started coming our way, we knew something big was going to happen, he said.

As the storm whipped through it knocked out all the radio towers, except for one and Bob was the only DJ on the air that night. “We put our meteorologist on live quite a few times and I was just basically telling everyone to stay inside,” Zirngible said.

The storm stretched 40 miles wide and had winds over 100 miles per hour. “This particular case in 1980 was a bow echo but it was actually labeled a derecho and really a derecho is a bow echo but it is very long-lasting,” said Darren Maier, WEAU’s chief meteorologist. The complex of thunderstorms stretched through Peirce, Dunn, Eau Claire, and Chippewa counties. “They tend to fan on out and actually increases the speed of the winds in which they are moving so you end up getting a very fast-moving complex of storms that can produce a tremendous amount of wind damage,” Maier added.

The storm destroyed hundreds of homes and caused about $160 million in damage. “It’s something Eau Claire hasn’t experienced before; most people haven’t experienced before and in all likelihood never will experience again,” said Luc Anthony, the author of ‘Spearhead Echo: The Strom of 1980’. In the book, Luc put together a collection of pictures and stories from the storm. “Over and over people are helping others to try to recover,” Anthony said.

The community was continuously coming together, going nearly nine days without power. “So people quick started doing grill outs and you would have these community grill-outs across the city especially in the affected areas in the north and west side,” Anthony added.

And back at the radio station, “I just remember chainsaw ads and generator ads on the radio non-stop,” Zirngible said. But, nothing compares to the feeling of still being on the air the night of the storm. “The interesting thing was as the evening progressed, no one would tell me what was actually going on outside, they wanted to keep me calm and cool,” Zirngible added.

But once the storm had settled, the station engineer took bob outside to see the damage. “He took me outside with a flashlight in hand and I could see immediately when we walked out there, the towers down and it was like holy, the pylons were unbelievable and they were just lifted up and tossed,” Zirngible said.

He found a broadcast bay that once stood on the top of the tower on the ground and he picked it up, kept it, and still has it, 40 years later. “I’ll never forget it, that’s for sure,” Zirngible said.

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