Seeing the funnel cloud barreling toward the small town of Mentor in northwestern Minnesota on Thursday, Wes Michaels yelled to his daughter working in the family-owned gas station.
“It's coming straight for us,” he shouted. “Get in the cooler.”
“In seconds, everything was on top of us,” said Michaels' daughter Heidi. She survived the storm, her father's body shielding her from the debris that killed him.
The tornadoes that ripped through northwestern and southern Minnesota on Thursday killed at least one other person, leveled a broad swath of Wadena and damaged numerous houses and farm buildings across the state.
An elderly woman from the small community of Almora in Otter Tail County died during the storm and her husband was taken to the hospital, said David Hauser, Otter Tail County attorney and spokesman. Brittney Schulke of Almora told the Daily Journal that her grandmother, Margie Schulke, was killed and that her grandfather, Norman Schulke, suffered two broken shoulders.
“We know that there are several other people who were injured,” Hauser said.
Heidi Michaels said her father had owned the Cenex gas and convenience store in Mentor for four years and wasn't supposed to have been working Thursday, his 58th birthday. He had come in only to check on her after hearing the storm warnings. When he saw the twister headed for the station, he ordered her and several customers into the cooler just before the store and four vehicles were destroyed.
“He saved me,” Heidi Michaels said.
The tornadoes that struck Mentor and Almora were the state's first fatal twisters in two years.
The storm that crashed into Almora also spawned a tornado that tore up about a 10-block residential area in nearby Wadena, ripping up old oak and elm trees, tearing off roofs and damaging buildings.
“It's a whole different horizon now,” said Randy Mohs, who drove through town after the storm.
The hours-long march of ferocious weather across the state also knocked out power in many locations, keeping utility and emergency crews busy as night fell.
The metro area was largely spared, with scattered reports of tornadoes and funnel clouds in the western suburbs, but no reports of serious damage. About 6,000 homes, mostly in the west metro area, lost power for a portion of the evening.
In Wright County, a tornado was on the ground north of Buffalo in a fairly rural area, but no injuries were reported, said Sgt. Peter Walker of the Sheriff’s Office. Damage was limited to downed trees and power lines, along with minor property damage, he said. A tornado was confirmed in McLeod County about 5:25 p.m., emergency management director Kevin Mathews said. “It was on the ground for a quarter to a half-mile, but it touched down in a field,” he said, adding that damage was limited to downed trees and grain wagons.
Multiple tornadoes and funnel clouds also raked Freeborn and Faribault counties in southern Minnesota. Buildings and other property near Kiester and Walters in Faribault County, along the Iowa border, were badly damaged. County Commissioner Tom Warmka said Kiester had been closed to traffic because live power lines were down in the streets. An 8-mile stretch of Hwy. 22 was also closed and many farms in the area were damaged, he said.
In Freeborn County, in the southern part of the state, multiple tornadoes hit, including one a half-mile wide, emergency management director Mark Roche said. Roche, who was out assessing the damage Thursday night, knew of multiple people taken to hospitals, but he didn’t have accounts of the seriousness of the injuries.
A shelter was opened at the National Guard Armory in Albert Lea for those in Freeborn County who lost housing in the storm, Roche said.
Travis Henderson, mayor of Conger, about 10 miles west of Albert Lea, said everyone had been accounted for “one way or another.” “Several farms are lost and houses are gone,” he said.
Fire departments from around the county were in Conger helping to round up pigs and cattle set loose in the storm, Henderson said, including one farm that had up to 3,000 pigs.
Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden said the storm wiped out about a quarter of his town and left about 20 people injured. “Dozens and dozens of homes are flattened,” he said. “Part of the roof on the high school was ripped off and thrown across the street. The high school is damaged. The community center is gone.”
Luckily, the sirens in town alerted residents before the storm hit; otherwise there might have been more injuries. He and his daughter stayed in the basement as the sirens blared and the storm passed overhead. It took just three minutes, he said. “I heard a train just like they say,” Wolden said.
When the storm passed, he noticed his home lost only a few shingles. “But my neighbors lost their homes.”
The building that housed Leaf River Ag Service was leveled and an old two-story house that boarded students who attend the nearby vocational community college was destroyed, Mohs said.
“It’s cork-screwed across the street. It’s twisted like a candy wrapper,” Mohs said. “There are a lot of sirens, ambulances, police. There are helicopters flying. … It’s a mess.”
Joanne Ostlund, who works in the Wadena city offices, waited out the storm with co-workers. “There was a lot of damage,” she said. “My garage and shed are gone and one of our neighbors lost an entire farm site.”
Gov. Tim Pawlenty plans to inspect the damaged sections of the Wadena and other areas Friday.
In the nearby Deer Creek area, several farms were heavily damaged, said Deer Creek resident Kathy Hill.
“My brother’s farm is pretty much gone,” she said. “The barns are gone. The house is damaged.”
Hill and her husband tried to reach her brother’s farm, but roads were blocked. Then she tried to check on her sister in Wadena, but entrances to the town were blocked.
“The roads are filled with debris — 2-by-4s, metal from buildings, power lines,” she said. “We have no electricity. No telephone service. It was bad. It will be awhile before recovery happens.”
Hail up to 4 inches in diameter was reported elsewhere in Douglas County. Hail also dominated reports across southern Minnesota, with a report of 2 1/2-inch stones near Fairfax, about 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities.
With the storms over, benign weather is forecast to return to Minnesota on Friday and Saturday, with the Twin Cities expecting sun and highs of 86 Friday and 79 Saturday.