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The Forgotten 1982 Tornado Behind Kohl's - Waukesha, WI

Nov 29, 2011
Before you read this blog post, click the following link: Tornado over Kohl's Department Store - Waukesha, Wisconsin. Due to copyright issues, I'm not allowed to post the image of the tornado on my site. Once you have the image open, I'll walk you through what you're looking at.

If you're a Wisconsin resident from the Waukesha, Brookfield or Milwaukee area you may have seen this tornado. I came across a picture of this twister in science text books from elementary, middle and high school. The photo captions from those books and the caption from the page link above have mentioned it was a Tornado over Washington County, Wisconsin. I never found out what tornado this was or when it happened.

Recently, I was going through some of my weather documents and ran across a calendar from the movie Twister I had owned for years. I scanned through monthly photos and found this same tornado photo I've seen in school. I have a knack for severe weather history and my curiosity got me researching on what tornado this could have been and after analyzing the photo for 15 minutes I had a sense of déjà vu. It seemed like I've been at the place where this photograph was taken. Where in Washington County could this twister have happened? There is a sign highlighted in yellow that says Westbrook. Most Waukesha and Brookfield, Wisconsin residents know there is a Westbrook Shopping Center located on the eastern side of Waukesha on Mooreland Road. However, the Kohl's Department Store isn't there but maybe it wasn't built yet or this was a different Westbrook Shopping Center somewhere in Washington County. I put the calendar photo away for over a year and didn't think much of it.

I pulled out the tornado photo recently to look at it again and discovered more clues I hadn't noticed before. To the left of the Westbrook sign there is a small water tower in the background. Could this be the water tower on Calhoun Road and Capital Drive in Brookfield? One night I was browsing on The Sha - Facebook Page which is a facebook group consisting of 7,000 members that discuss topics about the city of Waukesha, the state of Wisconsin and anything from history, current events, etc. To my amazement someone posted a photograph of this same exact tornado I had been researching for a couple of years.

I was surprised many people were offering their thoughts trying to figure out what tornado this was. After reading the comments at first, everyone assumed it was the Wales, Wisconsin Tornado 1984 Wales, Wisconsin Tornado (pictured left) that traveled close to Waukesha and about a mile from the neighborhood where I grew up. I wasn't convinced because the Wales Tornado never had much precipitation around it and the surrounding sky was much lighter. I read more comments from users and it all started to make sense. I looked back at the picture to find a much hidden clue.

To the far left on the picture there is a store sign lit up but it's hard to make out. I realized the first letter appeared to be the letter K in cursive but most of the lights were not on except for the top of the letters. It appeared to read Kohl's, but with an old font they used from the 1980's. Someone on The Sha - Facebook Page mentioned there used to be a Fresh Express food store next to Kohl's until they closed and Kohl's eventually expanded. The calendar photo confirmed it. To the far right I found another clue. To the bottom and left of the telephone pole there is the old Pizza Hut sign on Springdale and Mooreland Road, which is no longer there today.

The Kohl's, Fresh Express, Brookfield Water Tower, Westbrook signage and Pizza Hut confirmed this photo of the tornado was indeed taken across the street from Westbrook Shopping Center near Skateland in Waukesha. Further research indicated this Tornado Touched Down in Brookfield, Wisconsin - May 1982. It had a damage path near Capitol Drive, Lisbon and Calhoun Roads. The subdivision is to the left of the water tower in the photo where the tornado touched down. I had my answer.


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30 years later (using Google Street View) the Kohl's Department Store has expanded, the Brookfield water tower is no longer visible from the shopping center due to the trees and new businesses are now built. Most people probably didn't even know a tornado existed over the skies of Waukesha and Brookfield on that Saturday afternoon day of May 15, 1982. The only documentation seem to be from those old school text books said it had occurred somewhere in Washington County, but after conducting some research and a little déjà vu, that was an error all along.

Comments

Chad
Jul 8, 2013 - 12:40 pm
I was actually IN Fresh Express when that occurred! I've never seen a photo of the tornado, so it's crazy to run across one 30+ years later.

I was only 7 at the time. My mom and I were at the register when someone excitedly rushed in saying there's a tornado outside. The employees hurried everyone to a large, walk-in freezer in the back storage area of the store.

I've been fascinated by tornadoes ever since.
Tyler
Jul 10, 2013 - 9:42 pm
Chad,

Thanks for posting! I don't know too many people that remember this tornado, so it's cool to hear your experience. That photo is the only one that I'm aware of.

It seemed Waukesha County had many tornadoes in the late 70's and throughout the 80's. Of course the Wales, Wisconsin tornado happened two years later, shown above. Thanks for writing!
Mathews Ford
Mar 5, 2017 - 12:28 am
I am 14, so I wasn't born yet when this happened, but I live less than a mile from the water tower and the neighborhood that it went through, I'm looking outside right now and it scares me to think a big tornado went through where i'm looking at.