Deadly tornado crashes through north Minneapolis

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE, RANDY FURST, PAUL WALSH and HERON MARQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 3:15 PM

Powerful storm blew into metro, killing 1, injuring 30 and putting North Side under curfew.

Two days of threatening skies turned furious over the Twin Cities on Sunday, unleashing at least three tornado touchdowns in the metro area, killing one person in Minneapolis, injuring at least 30 others, knocking out power to thousands and leading to a curfew and school closings in north Minneapolis.

The massive, slow-moving storm also caused major damage in other metro communities, most significantly St. Louis Park and Fridley.

In the hardest-hit area, Minneapolis' Jordan neighborhood, downed trees, snapped power lines and pieces of roofs littered streets and yards. The smell of natural gas led police to call people out of some homes. Roads were blocked and residents scrambled to find loved ones; close to 200 or so people displaced by the storm made their way to an emergency shelter at the Northeast Armory, near Broadway and Central Avenue.

Mayor R.T. Rybak described the damage as "widespread and significant" after he and City Council President Barbara Johnson viewed it from a helicopter.

Rybak and Police Chief Tim Dolan said Sunday night that the three-day 9 p.m.-to-6 a.m. curfew was imposed to help emergency workers move around and to prevent looting of damaged homes and businesses.

At 9 p.m., commercial streets in north Minneapolis were all but deserted, although countless people continued working on fixing their homes in residential areas. Police reported no major problems.

Just after the storm, about 22,000 Xcel Energy customers across the metro area were without power; by 8 p.m., that number had been cut roughly in half. Lack of electricity forced the emergency command center to be moved twice, and it ended up just across the Minneapolis border in Fridley. Xcel officials indicated that most power should be restored by midnight Monday but that some customers may not get it back until Tuesday or later because of significant structural damage to that area's electricity system.

The Hennepin County medical examiner's office said one person died near 37th and Fremont Avenues N. No details about that person or the circumstances of the death were immediately available, although there were reports that it was a man whose car was hit by a tree.

Also, 30 people were taken to hospitals. Two were critically hurt, 12 had moderate injuries and 15 minor injuries.

Six public schools in the storm-damaged area of north Minneapolis -- Lucy Laney, Cityview, Nellie Stone Johnson, Hmong International Academy, Northstar and Plymouth Youth Center -- will be closed Monday, said Heather Peters, a Minneapolis schools spokeswoman. Other district schools will remain open.

The curfew covers an area from Interstate 94 west to Penn Avenue N. and from Plymouth Avenue N. to Dowling Avenue N. Residents were told to stay in their homes "for their own safety," city spokesman Matt Laible said.

"We don't want any looting," Dolan said. "There's property strewn all over. There are wires down. There's not much lighting. It's for people's safety and for the safety of people's property."

A trail of wreckage

Sunday's tornado was the first to strike within the city of Minneapolis since a minor twister in south Minneapolis on Aug. 19, 2009. Sunday's damage appeared consistent with tornadoes rated EF2, which carry winds of 111 to 135 miles per hour. Only 10.7 percent of U.S. tornadoes are rated EF2, and only about 4 percent are stronger. On Monday, damage assessment teams from the National Weather Service will visit dozens of damage scenes and make a final pronouncement on the length, strength and number of tornadoes.

The havoc started about 2 p.m. in St. Louis Park, where a suspected tornado tore up the Cedar Trails Condominiums complex, forcing residents from the 35-building property.

At 21st and Queen Avenues N., firefighters went door to door after the storm to urge residents to leave because of reports of a gas leak. Residents told of seeing the tornado go through their yards.

"It went right between our houses," said Tiffany Pabich, who was napping just as the tornado passed through near 21st and Queen. "A tree landed on top of my car. We smelled gas right away."

"Oh, my God, it's gone, it's gone," one woman said as she came across her badly damaged house at Russell and 21st Avenues N.

The large number of downed trees and traffic congestion caused by emergency vehicles, evacuees and people streaming into the area to gawk produced traffic snarls. Hundreds of people had to leave their homes on foot, many with children and pets in tow. Most were headed toward the police station on Plymouth Avenue, directed there by officers.

"We got out alive," one woman said as she herded six children down the road.

Up the street, in an even more heavily damaged area, people started to clean up.

"It's a good thing we were in the basement at the time," said Zahra Ali, who escaped injury with her two daughters, ages 16 and 17. Power lines behind her home were down and nearly every window was damaged. Ali said her daughters were shaken but OK.

The city advised families looking for loved ones to go to the Northeast Armory, 1025 NE. Broadway, or call 651-268-8537. About 200 people were at the shelter Sunday. "This is a distressed neighborhood to begin with," said Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner-Solon, who was at the armory. "These people are suffering a tremendous loss."

People continued to arrive, many of them dropped off by a Metro Transit bus with a "rescue bus" sign on it.

Three Salvation Army mobile kitchens and crews set up shop, and one is expected to continue to operate Monday at 25 37th Av. NE. "I've got 24 to 36 hours of back-up volunteers ready to go," said Drew Hasty, the Salvation Army's metro disaster manager.

Near dusk, Steve Miller, 38, of Coon Rapids, and his family handed out sandwiches and water from his car trunk. "Anybody need prayer? Anybody need Jesus?" he called out, adding, "I think people should realize when you see catastrophes on TV you should take them to heart, because you never know when it will strike you in your back yard."

Damage in northern suburbs

In Fridley, the storm tipped over two Burlington Northern rail cars, sheared in half a stand of mature trees near I-694 and left extensive pockets of damaged homes and businesses.

The storm struck with quick fury. Peter Krueger and his 2-year-old son, Ezra, were looking warily out the front of their home on Panorama Avenue when the wind and rain suddenly picked up.

"It was just straight across -- a horizontal rain," said Krueger, who saw insulation, tree limbs and debris whip through the air as he gathered up his little boy and rushed downstairs.

Krueger's neighbor Gretta Stritesky arrived home to find a tree had crashed through the roof and come to a rest on her bed. Somehow, Stritesky managed a smile at the room's odd mix -- leaves, rumpled sheets, shingles, a fuzzy pink blanket, all cast into an unnatural relief by sunlight peeking through the roof. "My pillow is covered by this huge tree!" she said.

Parts of the metro area were covered by five tornado warnings Sunday. Sirens blared as heavy clouds swarmed across the skies for the second day in a row.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jim Taggart said an increase in "wind shear" -- the movement of winds in contrasting directions -- along with increased moisture and warmth in the atmosphere Sunday triggered the tornadoes.

Staff writers James Shiffer, Jill Burcum, Norman Draper and Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report.

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