Oakfield tornado raw video footage July 18, 1996, taken by Bryan Novak and Patti McBride. / Video courtesy of Bryan Novak
File photo. 1996 Oakfield tornado
Bryan Novak had been hearing about bad weather all day, that hot summer evening 17 years ago.
By 2 p.m. on July 18, 1996, multiple tornadoes had spawned in Wisconsin along a front that moved across the middle of the state.
Novak, then 34 and living at W8520 County Trunk D, Oakfield, had just finished dinner and was settling in to watch a 6:30 p.m. TV show when he saw an incredible sight.
“I looked out the window and I could see this hole in the sky,” he said.
Novak lived in a mobile home with his wife at the time. The couple’s only underground shelter was a root cellar about 30 feet from the front porch.
“I yelled at my wife, ‘You need to get out here and look at this,’” Novak said after running outside. “You could see the hole in the sky and see it rotating. If you saw the video, you didn’t see the tail for quite a while. I saw it way before it started to form.”
He ran back inside to grab a videocamera. His wife, Patti McBride, reluctantly helped him. He remembers stumbling as he tried to put a videotape in.
Beautiful but devastating
Once they started filming, they captured something beautiful but devastating — a characterization made by a passerby in a truck who stopped to chat with the couple in their front yard as the storm churned ¾-mile away toward Oakfield.
“I hate to say it, I know it’s doing destruction, but look how beautiful that is,” the man in the truck can be heard on the video saying to Novak and McBride.
“The guy that pulled up as I was videotaping it, he had been following the storm since Brandon,” said Novak.
The man saw the storm on his way home from work and followed it to Oakfield.
“It had already done damage to houses miles before I started taping it. The tornado had been going on, it just hadn’t picked up enough stuff to show its shape,” Novak said.
A feeling of dread welled inside Novak, who suddenly saw the roof blow off his neighbor’s barn less than a mile away. He realized the tornado was moving in a direct line toward Oakfield, where his sister lived and where he had grown up.
“At first you’re not thinking of it,” Novak said. “You’re caught up in the moment. Then all of a sudden when I saw it hit that farm — that farm is in a straight line to Oakfield. I knew it was probably only ¾-mile from Oakfield.
“‘Holy crap,’ it dawned on me, ‘it’s going to hit Oakfield.’ Then you saw the debris go up, that was the canning factory. (The ground) was just solid cans when it was done,” he said.
There was very little time for Oakfield residents to take cover. The storm sirens sounded not too many minutes before the cannery was destroyed.
The melee caused by the storm earned it an F-5 rating on the old Fujita Scale.
Novak said if someone stood at the northwest or southwest corners of Oakfield, “It looked like someone rolled a bowling ball straight through the city.”
“We were amazed,” said Novak, who drove through the city three days later with his sister, whose house was struck by a falling tree. “The path it left was probably 125 to 150 yards wide, they estimated. It went right through the middle, diagonal from northwest to southeast. When you went to where it came out to where it came in you could see right through the town.”
Power of the storm
Authorities sealed off Oakfield for about a week after the storm.
Novak’s sister lived in the village and she used a pass she was issued by emergency officials to pick up family members on the edge of town who helped with cleanup.
Novak, now 51, said Oakfield has recovered from the tornado, which did not take any lives. The only scar that remains is the absence of the city’s majestic oak trees, brought down by the powerful winds.
“When I got into town to really stand there, that’s when I realized what the power (of the storm) was,” Novak said. “Those were 100-something-year-old oak trees five- and six-feet in diameter, and those were pulled right out of the ground. There isn’t a machine made that can do that. That much power was packed into it.”
Still, there was beauty in the storm, he said.
“As far as a natural thing of Mother Nature, it was a beautiful site,” Novak said. “It’s a catch-22, because it’s devastating what it leaves behind. It was a beautiful site, but I don’t want to see one again like that. It’s hard to put into words what your emotions are.”
Novak narrates his video of the storm while he’s filming. He gets embarrassed now when he watches it and listens to some of the things he said.
“It was just the moment,” Novak said. “That’s another thing that makes it neat. When I listen to that. That’s the way it was, that’s the way it happened.
“You have to be really lucky to catch a storm like that (on camera). To have it happen in my front yard was pretty incredible.”
At that moment 17 years ago, Oakfield — nearly wiped off the map — became a part of twister history. No matter where Novak goes, he said people still associate Oakfield with its famous twister.
“Deep down inside me,” Novak said, “these are my friends and people I know. It’s not some town you see on the news. When I saw their houses... they were completely wiped out. When we found out there were no deaths we said, ‘Oh my God.’ That made it easier.”
Carlos Munoz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (920) 907-7921.