The Crist family had just made it to the basement of its Hugo home Sunday night to escape a tornado heading straight for town.

They looked out the patio door and saw a piece of somebody's rooftop flying in the air and, moments later, a boat hurtling toward them.

"Run!" Steve Crist cried to his wife, Jenell.

They all headed for the utility room just 3 feet away.

Steve Crist and their 5-year-old son, Jacob, made it inside, but suddenly pressure in the house created suction and the door slammed shut tight.

Jenell Crist, who was holding their 9-month-old daughter, couldn't open the door and was trapped outside the utility room. Her husband kicked the door hard, and it swung open.

Reunited in the utility room, the Crists huddled against the wall and listened.

They heard glass breaking, wood cracking and ... nothing.

"Everyone always says you hear a freight train or something," recalled Jenell Crist, "but we didn't hear that. We heard the glass breaking and wood splintering and then it was eerily calm."

They emerged from their hiding spot and found that their home had been reduced to rubble. That boat they had seen outside the patio door was now smashed against their deck's post.

"We had no idea that the top of our house was gone," Jenell Crist said Tuesday, leaning out of a black pickup truck parked where the garage had once sheltered the family vehicles. Above them now: sky.

She spent the day like most of her neighbors, sifting through the pieces of their shattered homes, talking to their insurance companies and vowing to rebuild.

"We love the people who live here. We love the young families. We love the location," she said of her neighborhood, which appeared to be the hardest-hit street in Hugo. Chainsaws roared, and disaster relief workers from the Red Cross and other agencies fanned out to reach affected families.

Jenell Crist says she's told her son that right now their house is broken and needs to be fixed. They plan to stay with family in nearby White Bear Lake until they can find a rental property where they can live while their house is being rebuilt, Jenell Crist said.

Thinking back to Sunday night when the sirens sounded made Crist thankful for their survival -- and for her husband, whom she credits for saving the family.

They had come back from a weekend at the cabin, she said, and had planned to go out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Jacob was watching a video when the sirens went off.

Steve Crist paused the video and turned on the television to watch the weather reports. When he heard that a tornado had been spotted in Coon Rapids and was heading due east toward Hugo, he gathered everyone in the basement and brought cell phones, a bottle for the baby, shoes and other items.

They made it just before the tornado struck.

"We were very lucky," Jenell Crist said. "Very lucky."

Allie Shah • 651-298-1550