Damage is being assessed this morning from a tornado that plowed across the northern part of the Twin Cities metro area Sunday afternoon, killing a 2-year-old child and seriously injuring eight people in Hugo. At least 50 homes were destroyed and another 100 were seriously damaged.
The Red Cross has opened a facility in the northeast suburb, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty plans to tour the area midday today.
Phones are ringing off the hook today at Hugo City Hall, where three people are struggling to keep up.
Most of the callers want to know when they can get back into their homes. Others want to know how they can help, and where they can donate food and supplies.
Houses lay splintered and smashed in a long swath of the small Washington County city. Hail-bearing thunderstorms formed west of the Twin Cities, spawning tornadoes between 4 and 5 p.m. as the system rolled eastward across the area and into western Wisconsin. Power lines were downed, golf-ball-size hail damaged buildings and cars, and toppled trees blocked roads in communities from Coon Rapids to Centerville to Forest Lake.
A 6-year-old girl who had been severely injured and whose heart had stopped was revived in an ambulance on the way to St. John's Hospital in Maplewood and later transferred to Regions Hospital in St. Paul, said hospital spokeswoman Anne Sonnee. St. John's treated and released three other people.
Eight people -- the transferred 6-year-old girl and seven adults -- were transported to Regions, said that hospital's spokeswoman, Jessica Flannigan. Others with minor injuries were treated at an emergency clinic set up in an elementary school.
Leonard and Margaret Seifert said today that they had watched the storm sweep in on their Hugo townhome, where they have no basement.
Rain and hail were so heavy that visibility was low as the second, and deadly, storm of the day swept in on them Sunday afternoon, Margaret Seifert, 76, said today.
Their home was one of those damaged, but she said they were grateful to be able to walk through the hardest hit area Sunday evening, even as they looked around in disbelief at the destruction.
“They were beautiful new homes,” Margaret Seifert said of the single family homes that 24 hours ago stood along 159 St. in Hugo.
Hugo Mayor Fran Miron said the dead and injured children may be from the same family, adding that he did not know their names.
The children's parents also were hospitalized, he said.
Eyewitnesses said that the dead child and sibling were blown out of their house, one of them into a pond. As many as 20 people were initially unaccounted for, but by 10 p.m. officials said all were located. Many were away from home for the Memorial Day weekend, Miron said, who added, "It's probably a blessing in this case."
Gov. Tim Pawlenty will meet with Hugo city officials and tour the storm zone today.
Tornado-spawning storms formed in midafternoon after a cool front invaded a humid atmosphere in which the temperature had hit 84 degrees at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said Todd Krause, a forecaster at the National Weather Service in Chanhassen.
The first reports of troublesome weather came from Willmar and Litchfield, and by 4 p.m., the Weather Service had issued a tornado warning for the area from Buffalo to Albertville. A warning for the Hugo area was issued at 4:37 p.m.; the storm struck just before 5 p.m.
Many people in the area reported hearing sirens. "There was adequate time" to take cover, Miron said.
"Everything points to it being a tornado" that hit in Hugo, Krause said, but an official verdict won't be in until teams of experts inspect the damage on the ground today, he said.
The tornado appeared to touch down for a matter of seconds or minutes, followed by strong winds, golf-ball-size hail and rain that snapped utility poles and uprooted trees.
In addition to the 150 damaged or leveled homes, several businesses also were damaged, the mayor said. The area hardest hit was along 159th Street in the Creekview Preserve neighborhood.
"The loss of life is our main concern," said Miron, who weathered the storm in his dairy barn and lost a large machine shed on his farm. "The property loss is something we can deal with."
Emergency command posts were erected in the neighborhood, at Oneka Elementary School and at City Hall.
'I can't believe I'm alive!'
Dan McKeague was working with friend Larry Swanson on his house in 159th Circle N. in Hugo when the twister struck. His wife, Kristen, was headed to Home Depot for supplies and his three small children were at their grandparents.
McKeague and Swanson heard sirens and went outside to bring in some equipment when the tornado appeared.
"It was a swirling vortex of two-by-fours and shingles," McKeague said. "I could not believe it. We ran down to the basement and into this storage area under the stairwell. I slammed the door and Larry grabbed some table leaves and put them over our heads. And right then it hit."
A matter of seconds -- "three or four"-- later, the walls collapsed around them.
"I opened the door and there was sky," he said. "Everything was gone, all gone! I can't believe I'm alive!"
As he spoke, he stood on his ravaged cul-de-sac, where every house had been damaged and some had been leveled.
Chris Petree, Hugo's public works director, said his family took shelter in the basement before the storm lifted his house off the ground and wiped out the second floor.
"I put my daughter down first, my wife on top of her and then I bear-hugged on top of them," Petree said.
Another tornado touched down in Coon Rapids, downing power lines, uprooting trees and plopping them down on houses.
Jon Kallstrom, 19, was at home in Centerville when the storm hit. "The rain was unbearable and the sky green. You could just tell something was going to happen," he said.
There was a burst of wind and hail, then silence, followed by a second blast of hail.
He drove to the area near Oneka Elementary School and saw the shattered houses.
"It's demolished,'' he said. "Boards all over the place, sheeting ripped off, people going through their houses looking for their belongings. People were crying. Neighbors were comforting neighbors. It was utter amazement.''
Describing people as "very shook and scared," Hugo city administrator Mike Ericson said, "Please keep our residents in your prayers and thoughts."