Powerful tornadoes don’t hit Door County. At least, that was the conventional wisdom before a late August evening 20 years ago this week.
Sure, there were sporadic tornado warnings, and occasionally a water spout was spotted over the bay, but rarely was one seen over land. From 1950 to 2017 just 19 tornadoes and waterspouts were reported, most causing little or no damage. That changed at 6:30 pm on Aug. 23, 1998.
A massive spout, clearly visible from the bluff on the north end of the village, was spotted in the waters of Green Bay just south of Egg Harbor. It quickly made its way ashore immediately south of Frank Murphy County Park as a multi-vortex, F3 tornado. It stretched up to half a mile wide at times and was on the ground for almost 14 minutes, carving a path of destruction five miles inland.
That night the streets of northern Door County were completely dark, with light coming only from those homes that had generators. In Egg Harbor, residents went to sleep expecting a morning of awful news.
The tornado uprooted thousands of trees and shredded buildings and homes in its path, including the Cornerstone Suites, Bel Air Motel, Sunnypoint Gardens, the old Sunny Point School, and the KOA campground. In total, the tornado caused an estimated $7 million in damage. There seemed to be no chance that all of the area’s residents and visitors would escape unharmed.
Amazingly, when residents awoke to see the devastation the morning of Aug. 24, nobody was killed, and only two people suffered injuries.