Two weak tornadoes touched down in the south metro late Saturday -- an extremely rare phenomenon that Minnesota has not experienced this late in the season since the National Weather Service began keeping tornado statistics in the 1950s, meteorologists said Sunday.
After a day of record-breaking highs that topped out in the lower 70s in some parts of the Twin Cities, a strong cold front rode in from the Dakotas, spawning the tornadoes in Dakota County around 11 p.m. Saturday. They fanned into straight-line winds that ripped out trees, knocked out power and caused light structural damage in Dakota, Ramsey and southern Washington counties.
No injuries were reported, but trees and power lines were blown down. Power was lost to about 12,000 homes and businesses, primarily in Mendota Heights, West St. Paul and St. Paul. Electricity was restored to nearly all by Sunday night, an Xcel Energy spokeswoman said.
The twisters were rated as EF-0, on a scale that rates the most devastating tornadoes as EF-5.
"In terms of tornadoes, these were of the weakest that we could rank," said Chris Franks, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Chanhassen. "But even a weak tornado can still do damage. Any tornado ... in a metro area can be dangerous with that many people."
The November twisters are not only rare in Minnesota, but are "extremely rare for places in the Northern Plains, the Upper Mississippi River Valley," which would include Wisconsin, Iowa and North and South Dakota, Franks said.
On Sunday, a three-member Weather Service team tracked the storms' path in Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties to determine whether it was indeed one or more weak tornadoes or straight-line winds. It surveyed damage in the hardest-hit areas, including Mendota Heights, West St. Paul and tiny Lilydale.
The first tornado showed up on radar at 10:58 p.m., touching down near McAndrews Road and County Road 5 in Burnsville. It moved northeast. Wind speeds were estimated at 80 miles per hour. It then widened into straight-line winds.
Seven minutes later, a line of thunderstorms moving fast to the northeast produced a second tornado following the Mississippi River, and it dropped down near the intersection of Interstate 494 and Hwy. 13. That one had wind speeds of 70 to 75 mph.
The winds had picked up intensity as they swept from the west into the east metro, with pockets of homes and businesses hardest hit, and power failures in West St. Paul and Mendota Heights, said Patti Nystuen, an Xcel Energy spokeswoman.
The straight-line winds were nearly as strong as the tornadoes, wreaking nearly as much damage and over wider swaths, Franks said. Wind damage was reported as far north as White Bear Lake.
Storms surprised many
The tornadoes came four to six weeks later than the typical time that twisters end in Minnesota, Franks said.
"It sure as heck sounded like one," said Jim Wasson, whose house on West St. Paul's Cherokee Street was hit hard, along with others in that area. "You know how people say it sounds like a freight train. It does."
The clouds had parted Saturday afternoon, and temperatures rose as high as 71 and 72 in parts of Minnesota, including New Ulm and pockets in the south metro.
Just after 11 p.m., Wasson had tried to put his and his companion's dogs outside, but they wouldn't go in the yard and scampered back inside "like they knew something was coming." Wasson, 50, said he sat on his couch, and then "the lights went out and all fury broke loose."
Rain came down so densely it looked like milk, he said. Electrical lines snapped, "flashing like the sun was falling," Wasson recalled Sunday, above the buzzing of chainsaws.
"I opened the door quick and I saw the 60-foot, towering pines break into pieces like toothpicks and blow up in the air over the neighbors' yards. A huge tree in front of the house was ripped out of the ground and landed on my car."
The house where he and Tom Brotzman live was left with shingles missing and back windows bowed out.
Straight-line winds of up to 70 mph hit Wasson's neighborhood, Franks said.
In Lilydale, along the Mississippi River, the Lilydale Senior Living community had roof and landscaping damage, and a trailer blew over.
"It peeled back the roof -- it was just really windy," said Pam Robb, resident director. Damage to a sprinkler head in the attic set off sprinklers that caused water damage in some fourth-floor apartments. The seniors were moved to a lower floor, where they were served coffee and cookies, and were back in their apartments within a few hours.
In Mendota Heights, West St. Paul and Mahtomedi, trees fell on vehicles and roofs, officials said.
Across the metro area, a quarter- to a half-inch of rain fell, along with a trace of snow in some areas.
While the precipitation is welcome, several big snowfalls and spring rains would be needed to help ease the ongoing drought, Franks said.
There's been a serious deficit of precipitation since Sept. 1, nearly 4 inches below what's considered normal, he said.
Joy Powell • 651-925-5038