‘Am I dead or not?’ Tornado survivor shares story as a warning about severe weather safety

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MILWAUKEE — It's been a relatively quiet severe weather season in southeast Wisconsin so far. It's easy to think strong storms don't happen here, but one many lost everything in an EF-4 tornado. And, it was just a couple of hours from Milwaukee.

Clem Schultz was capturing video of a tornado in Fairdale, Illinois out his bedroom window in April 2015 when it directly hit and destroyed his home.

"I thought, 'I wonder, am I dead or not?  Well you can’t hurt when you’re dead, and I hurt, so I’m not dead,'" Schultz recalled. "I was spared from that tornado. My wife wasn’t."

Schultz remembers his last moments with his wife, Geri, clearly.

Clem Schultz

“She called me to the kitchen, let me look out the window. There’s a big black tornado coming," Schultz remembered.

They had the local news on in the background, but Schultz thought the tornado looked like it would stay west of his home. Instead of taking shelter, he went upstairs for lanterns in case their home lost power.

"I’m a shutterbug anyway, so I got out my camera phone and was shooting out the window," Schultz said.

His home was over 100 years old. He knew it must have withheld strong storms before and assumed this would be no different.

"I saw part of my roof blow past the window, and I thought, 'Well maybe it’s not gonna hang on quite as well as I hoped it would.' And, then, the floor started moving, and I figured, no I don’t think it’s gonna hang on at all," Schultz said.

Schultz was caught under a crumbling brick fireplace as his home collapsed around him. His wife was still downstairs. Then, he says, everything went quiet. It was the pain that made Schultz realize he had survived.

"So, I started digging my way out of the rubble," remembered Schultz.

A neighbor helped him sit down on beam from what used to be his home.

"He said, 'But, don’t look down.' 'Why don’t look down?' He says, ''Cause your wife is right underneath ya, and she's dead,” Schultz recalled.

Luke Odell

It was shortly after that Luke Odell, a Ph.D. students and storm chaser from UW-Madison, met Schultz.

"It was like a war zone," Odell said. “I was so numb because I’d never really seen something that horrific that close.”

Odell wasn't trained in emergency management and he didn't have any medical supplies on him, but he did what he could to help.

“He had blood on his head and -- sort of disoriented," Odell remembered.

The two didn't meet again until a few days later when Schultz was at the VA hospital in Madison getting help for his crushed vertebrae.

"I find it difficult to even comprehend how Clem and other people deal with it afterward. Because you see something like that just as an outsider, and it’s life-changing," Odell said.

Camera phones make it tempting to film everything these, but when asked what he would tell people who to risk their lives filming a tornado Schultz offered some advice.

"I can answer that in one word. Don’t," he said.

Tim Halbach from the National Weather Service says there are things you can do to protect yourself during a tornado.

One thing he doesn't recommend is getting into your car and trying to drive away.

"You might think you’re driving in the opposite direction of where the tornado’s going, but they can shift," Halbach advised.

"The advice that’s given right now -- and it’s changed over the years -- is to stay in your home in the interior room away from windows. This advice works for most tornadoes. Because most tornadoes are not EF-4, EF-5 tornadoes," Odell said.

Staying home is not a guarantee, but unless you understand storm dynamics, it's still considered a safer option than outrunning a tornado in your car.

With that in mind, it's important to know safe spots in your home, like a room on the lowest level away from the windows, and practice drills if you have children.

Schultz was less than two hours from Milwaukee when an EF-4 tornado changed his life. That kind of weather can happen in Milwaukee. Learn from his experience and remember that your life is more than a viral video.

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