Meg Jones, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Published 5:08 p.m. CT June 7, 2020 | Updated 8:22 p.m. CT June 7, 2020
Sure, Wisconsin gets tornadoes, snow storms and bitter cold — but tropical storms?
Yeah, not so much.
But Tropical Storm Cristobal is expected to track into Wisconsin on Tuesday, bringing heavy rains and gusting winds.
The last time a tropical storm or hurricane tracked into Wisconsin was Hurricane Gilbert in September 1988, which clipped the southeastern portion of the state in Lake Michigan.
In fact, only three tropical systems are known to have found their way into the Badger State since meteorological records have been kept. The others were a Category 2 hurricane in early October 1949, back before they were named, which moved across parts of southeastern Wisconsin, including Milwaukee.
And the devastating September 1900 Galveston hurricane — still the deadliest natural disaster in American history, with fatalities estimated at between 6,000 and 12,000 — moved into Wisconsin from Rockford, Illinois, and struck areas just north of Kenosha as it moved east.
Sunday afternoon, Tropical Storm Cristobal was off the Louisiana coast with heavy rain and sustained winds of 50 mph, moving north at 5 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Though the track of Cristobal through the central United States was still uncertain Sunday afternoon, National Weather Service meteorologists are forecasting the possibility of heavy rain in southern Wisconsin Tuesday afternoon or evening and lasting into Wednesday.
“Right now there’s still some uncertainty for the track of the heaviest rain,” said Taylor Patterson, a National Weather Service meteorologist based in Sullivan. “On Wednesday we’re looking at stronger and gustier winds as it leaves.”
There’s also the potential of severe weather on Wednesday, which could mean tornadoes, said Patterson. High temperatures on Tuesday and Wednesday are expected in the mid 70s in metro Milwaukee.
Just where southern Wisconsin could see the heaviest amounts of rain and the possibility of localized flooding was still unclear Sunday.
How is it that Wisconsinites could get drenched by a tropical storm?
The cause is a large high pressure system parked over the center of the country. Upper level winds normally move west to east, so most hurricanes are pushed east or northeast once they hit land and are influenced by low pressure systems.
The rare confluence of a tropical storm and a high pressure system in the central part of the U.S. will allow Cristobal more opportunity to head north — right toward Wisconsin — instead of turning northeast, Patterson explained.
Patterson grew up in Michigan and worked at the National Weather Service bureau in Portland, Maine, before coming to Wisconsin, where she thought she’d only have to contend with subzero cold and snowstorms.
“This is my first tropical storm. I never thought one would come this far north,” she joked.
Hurricane Gilbert was a Category 5 storm that caused widespread destruction in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, but it was only a tropical storm by the time it hit Lake Michigan on the Wisconsin side.
The 1949 and 1900 hurricanes were only tropical storms by the time they hit Wisconsin because storms usually gain strength over warm waters like the Gulf of Mexico and weaken when they move over land.
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