2 years later: La Crosse still recovering from Tornado

It was an old saying: a tornado could never hit an area where three rivers meet

Two years ago Wednesday, La Crosse’s first tornado in about 50 years ripped through the city.

It left a 3-mile path of destruction right in the middle of the city.

Some companies are still in the process of recovering, and for some people, their mentality during tornado season has changed forever.

Today, Gundersen’s medical resident housing looks as it should — standing strong and tall — but two years ago, the hospital’s emergency manager, Tom Wright, would have told you a different story.

“We had a lot of structural damage to the apartment units around us,” said Wright. “Some things as minor as roof and siding damage, and some as severe as actual penetration from flying debris.”


The tornado damaged all 24 buildings but narrowly missed the hospital.

This past year, Wright said hospital evacuation training has become more important than ever.

“People take practice much more seriously now than they did then,” said Wright. “The evacuation exercises we do floor-by-floor were by floor demands. Staff wanted to know, ‘What are my options?'”

“At the time, we did not see it coming,” said Mike Bakalars, president of Bakalars Sausage Company.

Down the street from Gundersen Health System, Bakalars Sausage Company was one of the businesses hardest hit by the tornado.

Bakalars faced a hard decision: rebuild what they’ve called home for about 50 years or start anew.

“The cost of repairs exceeds the value,” said Bakalars.

About a week ago, the business started making the move into its new home in La Crosse’s Industrial Park.

“It was bittersweet,” said Bakalars. “It really was. It had been home to us for a very long time. Fortunately, we’re able to relocate in the city of La Crosse, and we’re very happy and very proud of that.”

Once the move is complete, the building will allow the business to operate more efficiently on one spacious floor instead of two.

“We were able to turn something that was a negative into a real positive for us,” said Bakalars.

While moving forward is still a work in progress, both said their mentality of tornadoes has changed completely.

“I think probably what’s been our greatest change has been awareness,” said Wright. “When tornado season rolls around, we know it can happen here.”

Bakalars said they are about halfway done with the moving process. The office staff and the inventory are still in the old building.

Everything should be finalized by the end of next week.

Bakalars said the old building is for sale.

Repairs to the Gundersen Campus were complete within about six weeks of the tornado.

In addition to more evacuation training, the hospital has also added special evacuation chairs and plastic sleds staff can use to help patients and their families safely get out of the building.