25 years after tornado, winds of change hit Springbrook

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 13, 2011 - 8:37 AM

Twenty-five years ago a tornado spun through the nature center in Fridley, uprooting and destroying tens of thousands of trees and deflating spirits. But nature fought back, bringing new life to this suburban piece of wooded heaven.

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The old stump created by a tornado 25 years ago is being slowly engulfed by a sprout from that same tree at Springbrook Nature Center in Fridley.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Karen Shragg was on the phone when the sirens went off. She looked outside, saw what she described as a "giant white Hershey's kiss" above her head, and then retreated to the back of the Springbrook Nature Center office with three teenage boys who were working with her.

"I'll break both of your legs if you don't do as I say," she told the boys, trying not to panic.

It was a Friday afternoon, about 5:05 p.m., and the nature center in Fridley was virtually empty. An hour earlier -- before rush hour -- or maybe an hour later, there would have been dozens of nature-lovers walking the park's trails. But for the 16 minutes when a tornado touched down on July 18, 1986, at the heavily wooded, 127-acre center, Shragg never felt more alone.

She had experienced a tornado in 1965 as a child in Golden Valley, watching fence posts fly across neighbors' yards and rooftops spin through the air like Frisbees. But the 15 years of nightmares that followed didn't prepare her for the 16 minutes of chaos that spun around her in 1986.

What made this tornado so unusual was the destruction it did not cause, relatively speaking, and the recovery that followed -- something the center and the public will celebrate from noon to 4 Sunday with exhibits, videos food and ice cream.

Crunch time

Shragg, now director of the Wood Lake Nature Center in Richfield, will be at Springbrook, but she won't need to watch the video to recall what happened that day.

From their corner in the center's office that afternoon, Shragg and the boys could hear "crunching" outside. The building's front-door glass shattered. Shutters were ripped from the building. Shragg's Ford was tossed to the other end of the parking lot, with every window imploding.

Shragg's ears popped seven times -- indicating the number of times the tornado had spun around the building.

Calls could not be made from the Springbrook phone line, but anyone with TV reception could watch the devastation live. As the tornado bounced through the nature center, a KARE-11 helicopter, piloted by a Vietnam air veteran perilously close to the eye of the storm, captured the historic moment live.

Siah St. Clair, Springbrook's director, was taking his first vacation in three years. In Michigan for a high school reunion, he watched aghast the breathtaking TV footage of the storm wreaking havoc on the land and center he loved.

Boardwalks and trees flew across the television screen, he recalled.

"Had I been there, I would have been like Dorothy, never leaving the house," he said. "To see my life commitment twirling through the air was just hard to watch."

Simple twists of fate

He returned the next day to six inches of debris across his office floor. A crater's-worth of sod had been ripped away from the prairie floor, where wildflowers grew. Tens of thousands of trees were snapped in half, uprooted or so twisted that lumber companies refused to remove them, saying the trees were so torn internally that their insides had been reduced to slivers.

When a lumberjack from Oregon finally said he would cut the trees if allowed to sell the remains as firewood, wouldn't you know it would be the warmest winter in 50 years and nobody seemed to want the wood?

Yet there were no injuries, no lives lost. Not a single aquarium was broken. The Northtown Mall, just a few blocks away, escaped unscathed.

Hundreds of volunteers collected the thousands of broken branches littering the woods. Giant brush piles were burned in controlled fires that produced spectacular 50-foot flames, St. Clair recalled.

Volunteers planted 3,000 trees, many of which were quickly eaten by deer that had followed closely behind the planters.

"It was hard enough losing 150-year-old trees to the tornado," St. Clair said. "Walking through here in the morning and seeing the light peek between the branches was like walking through a cathedral.

"Then it became so frustrating when the deer made a snack out of our volunteers' hard work."

New nests, new hopes

But the light between the trees would shine again. And with it came Springbrook's miracles of nature.

Shorebirds began nesting in open prairies. Gray-horned owls nested in the oaks. Woodpeckers reclaimed old nesting areas that were still intact. Grouse nested in the aspens.

And the deer left alone the 4,000 newly planted trees whose narrow trunks were encased in plastic.

The center attracted a variety of birds more diverse than ever before.

"Five years after the tornado, people would say, 'Before the tornado, it looked so wonderful,'" St. Clair said. "But it is wonderful.

"I really had to let go of the feeling I once had for the center and the emotional pull of the tornado and appreciate what we have."

Visitors to the center marvel at the glass-encased displays of live frogs and toads, turtles and snakes. But there's also a large, framed black-and-white photo of the tornado with the KARE-11 helicopter darting to the left of the funnel cloud.

For sale are T-shirts displaying a photo of the tornado and plastic vases. At Sunday's event, proceeds will be used to help victims of the May 22 tornado that hit north Minneapolis and Fridley.

The miracles are free -- like the new vertical branches growing from a tree bent like an arc during the tornado. And a new tree that has engulfed the stump of a tree shredded by the fierce winds 25 years ago.

Shragg no longer has her Ford from 25 years ago.

"I couldn't believe when I saw it had been moved from one section of the lot to another or that the windows had imploded," she said. "But the car still worked. It started. I drove it.

"One of the first things I did, when I realized what was happening, was I pushed a button that lowered these guards over the building's windows. There were no cellphones then. You could answer phone calls, but you couldn't make them. Something was wrong with the line.

"But people found out. Amazingly, it was captured on TV and nobody got hurt. And nature does recover."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT: A 25th anniversary commemoration of the July 18, 1986, tornado

    WHERE: Springbrook Nature Center, 100 85th Av. NE., Fridley

    WHEN: Noon-4 p.m. Sunday

    ADMISSION: $3 (or $2 in advance), with proceeds going to help victims of the May 22 tornado

    MORE INFO: Go to www.springbrooknature center.org

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