Six months later, picking up the pieces after Chetek tornado

It's been 6 months since a tornado touched down in Chetek, Wis., killing one and changing countless other lives forever.

While a handful of families have decided to return to the Prairie Lake Estates mobile home park that received the most damage, others are moving on.

For the first time since that fateful summer day, Cynthia Rutledge and her husband Doug have a place to call home. 

"I love it," Cynthia Rutledge said. "I fell in love with this house when I first saw it."

But of all the things she loves about her new house, it's the storm shelter that sealed the deal.

"I'm scared to death of storms," Cynthia said. "Never used to be. I was always a storm watcher. Now when that happens, I run for cover."

Their last home of more than six years was destroyed by the EF-3 tornado that tore through the mobile home park on May 16.

"Here I am looking out the door, here go these sheds and bicycles and everything flying around out there," Cynthia said. "It was just like looking at the 'Wizard of Oz.' It really was. It was weird."

Even though she was pinned under a pile of rubble, Cynthia escaped with a few bumps and bruises. Doug, however, spent 3 months in the hospital, while almost everything they owned was blown away.

"The walls were all gone," Cynthia said. "All we had was the floor, and the neighbors' frame got dropped on our house."

After living in their camper for months, friends and family helped the couple put a down payment on a house in Ladysmith--far from the mobile home park where their lives changed forever.

"I never want to go through it again," Cynthia said. "I'll tell you that."

And they're not alone: Less than a dozen former residents have moved back to the trailer park, which is now filled with empty lot after empty lot just six months after the storm.

Darla Amundson is one of the few who is putting down new roots in her former stomping grounds.

"Somebody has got to start over and start back here and help make it into the trailer court we want it to be again," Amundson said. "It's a slow process."

Amundson and her fiance had just paid off their trailer when the storm blew through, though they didn't have any insurance because they hadn't gotten their paperwork to their insurance company.

Now, they're fixing it up themselves in the hopes of returning their devastated community to its former glory.

"It's hard. You look out the window and there are no neighbors, no kids running around," Amundson said. "My grandson is the only one who gets on the bus anymore compared to 20 kids before. So it’s been difficult for them too."

Of the 55 trailers in the park, 38 were wiped out entirely and another 8 were seriously damaged.

"This is the biggest disaster to hit Barron County in my lifetime here," Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald said.

He and Ashley Rayment of Red Cedar Church have led the efforts to help the tornado victims get back on their feet.

"[We hope to provide] everything from getting them together and gathering to emotional support to spiritual support," Rayment said. "We drove volunteers out to help neighbors clean up their yards of debris. You name it. We've tried to be there for our neighbors."

With help from Rice Lake native and philanthropist Foster Friess, the Tornado Disaster Relief Fund has raised over $1 million and given out nearly $800,000 to help residents rebuild their lives.

But the biggest benefit--watching the community work together--is worth much more than money.

"We've had other tragedies happen in Barron County in the last 6 months, and I think from this effort of this tornado has made those tragedies easier to meet those people's needs on a quicker basis," Fitzgerald said.

For Rutledge and her family, financial help means a new roof over their head and a future in front of them.

"It's a continuation to our lives. It isn't really a fresh start,"Cynthia said. "It’s a continuation. You lose some stuff, you gain other stuff. That's the way I feel about it."

In all, 41 families from Prairie Lake Estates received financial help, while another 41 families from the greater community received aid as well.

In addition, the Tornado Disaster Relief Fund has applied for a federal grant to build a storm shelter at Prairie Lake Estates.

There are also plans to build a playground there as well in the hopes it will help draw people back to the mobile home park over the next year or so.

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