Storm delivers a nasty, surprising punch

It wasn't just a bad dream, south Minneapolis residents will find this morning when they awake to face uprooted trees, smashed roofs and the whine and beep of storm cleanup, all compliments of wind, heavy rain and possibly a tornado that ambushed their neighborhoods Wednesday.

The afternoon storms also damaged the Minneapolis Convention Center and disrupted metro traffic with downed trees and floodwater, then heavily damaged a middle school in North Branch and dumped 4 to 6 inches of rain on parts of Chisago and Kanabec counties north of the Twin Cities. But there were no reported injuries.

"It was like a big fist hitting the building," said custodian Randy Koivisto, who had been working in one of the classrooms in North Branch. "We heard the creaking and felt the motion." The damage could postpone the opening of school, officials said.

About 2,100 Xcel Energy customers remained without power late Wednesday night as residents in a swath of south Minneapolis east of Interstate 35W and north of 50th Street surveyed the damage and considered how to remove massive trees and branches from streets, sidewalks and roofs. Extra police were ordered to patrol the neighborhoods Wednesday night, and officials urged people to avoid the area today, when some streets are expected to remain closed.

Although Twitter and other websites were filled with talk and pictures of an apparent twister above downtown Minneapolis, the National Weather Service confirmed only one tornado in Minnesota during the afternoon, in Cottage Grove near the River Oaks golf course near Hwys. 61 and 95. There were no reports of damage or injuries. A tornado was confirmed west of Mankato around 6:30 p.m. likewise without damage. More scattered thunderstorms were predicted through the night and into today as a cold front rolled through the region.

Although thunderstorms had been forecast Wednesday, the sudden force at midafternoon was a surprise to residents and the National Weather Service. There were no severe thunderstorm warnings in effect when the service received a report of a tornado near downtown Minneapolis just after 2 p.m. Sirens were then sounded for the first of 10 tornado warnings across the metro area and eastern Wisconsin over the next two hours.

Residents near 46th Street and Park Avenue S. in Minneapolis reported hearing a roar from winds shortly before 2 p.m. Few saw anything in the sky, clouded by a hard-driving rain.

The trees in Chris and Al Ruehmann's yard were leveled after "the wind just came up with incredible force," Chris said. "Everything was just bent over sideways," she said. A massive tree in their yard was snapped, with the top dropping and coming to rest between their house and a neighbor's. Another, a pine, ended up on their roof.

They couldn't get to the upper floor of their house, but they knew they had water coming in Monday afternoon, "leaking through the ceiling and the light fixtures," Al Ruehmann said.

In Minneapolis, some of the first damage reported was at the Electric Fetus, a time-tested music and gift shop just south of downtown where windows were smashed, the roof shifted, plaster fell from the walls and water poured in. A sign on the boards Wednesday evening noted that the shop was closed "due to tornado." Owner Keith Covart said he could possibly re-open today, even though it might take weeks to repair the damage.

Nearby, the storms damaged an old copper spiral atop Central Lutheran Church in downtown Minneapolis, causing it to dangle from the building.

Joe Bjordal, a spokesman for Central Lutheran, said he wasn't sure how much it would cost to repair the spiral.

Central Lutheran was built in 1929, and to Bjordal's knowledge, it has never before been hit by such a powerful storm.

The storm largely escaped the notice of the 2,000 Lutherans involved in the national Evangelical Lutheran Church in America convention at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Representatives on the convention floor could hear rain on the roof, but only became aware of the turbulence outside when unofficial convention goers were moved in from the outside corridors for their safety.

Dan Luna, meteorologist-in-charge at the National Weather Service, said it was rare for a tornado to develop out of a thunderstorm that he described as "weak," with little of the warm updraft and height that characterizes tornado-producing storms.

Weather Service inspectors will visit damaged areas today to determine whether the destruction came from straight-line winds or tornadoes.

Wednesday's rain was another surprise feature of August after months of drought in the Twin Cities area. Nearly 1 inch of rain fell between 1 and 4 p.m. at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, and the 1.39 inches between midnight and late afternoon brought the August total to 5.12 inches. With still more than 10 days left in the month, that is the highest monthly total since the 6.04 inches that fell in September 2007.

While the rain was helpful in the short term for gardens and lawns, much of the metro area was 5 to 8 inches short of normal precipitation from April 1 through Tuesday, and between 12 and 16 inches short since June 1, 2008.

The last time a significant tornado hit Minneapolis was on June 14, 1981, when a twister struck Edina, passed near Lake Harriet and touched down in Roseville.

Staff writers Kevin Giles, Allie Shah, Abby Simons, Bruce Adomeit, Lee Dean, Suzanne Ziegler and Maria Elena Baca contributed to this report.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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