Nearly every survivor recalls the eerie green skies that muggy afternoon of May 6, 1965 — an omen of trouble on the horizon.
“It was warm and rainy. It was a really ishy day. It didn’t feel right. People felt there was electricity in the air,” historian Allen Taylor says.
A storm of catastrophic proportions was brewing, and the Twin Cities would feel its fury. Fridley, Spring Lake Park, Mounds View and the Lake Minnetonka area would be in the bull’s-eye. Six documented tornadoes touched down in the metro region, but many believe the number may have been greater.
The official death toll was 13, and 683 people were injured. One-quarter of Fridley lay in ruins. Swaths of Minnetonka, Spring Lake Park and Mounds View were also destroyed.
“It’s definitely the worst tornado outbreak in the Twin Cities. We haven’t had a day since where we had four F-4 tornadoes in the state in one day,” said state climatologist Pete Boulay. ”The success story was the low death count in the Twin Cities. People heeded the warnings and got to shelter.”
On Wednesday, May 6, residents will gather at the Fridley High School auditorium to commemorate the event on its 50th anniversary. Four survivors will walk through the storm’s time line and its aftermath. Presenters include 1965 Mounds View Mayor Don Hodges and Rob Brown, a member of the WCCO Radio team that covered the storms.
Taylor, who has written two books on the storms and helped organize the commemoration, will host a book signing at the event.
The Excelsior-Lake Minnetonka Historical Society will also host a program on May 11.
Taylor, a retired math teacher and amateur storm chaser, has interviewed hundreds of survivors of the storm as well as meteorologists who studied it. He’s also pored through newspaper and media accounts. “You still hear anguish in their voices,” he said.
Taylor, who is now a Coon Rapids resident, was a 5-year-old living near Mora, Minn., north of the Twin Cities, the day the storm struck.
“The thing I remember about the storm was the lightning and the noise,” he said.
Debris from Fridley was found in the Mora area.
The F-4 tornadoes were so powerful they sucked cinder blocks from cellars and shredded household items into unrecognizable heaps.
Taylor laid out the series of events of that day.
The dark skies turned violent between 5 and 6 p.m. The first confirmed tornado touched down in Carver County, killing a dairy farmer. WCCO Radio played a critical role during the storms as newsmen used firsthand accounts to track the twisters and warn listeners.
Two confirmed tornadoes plowed through the Lake Minnetonka area. Witnesses watched funnel clouds move across the lake. “It sucked out the water. You could see the boulders 40 to 50 feet down,” witnesses told Taylor.
The storm arrived in Anoka County around 7 p.m., where it unleashed its full power.It “pulsed,” repeatedly building and then ebbing, as one meteorologist described it at the time.
According to official records, two twisters struck Fridley and neighboring cities at 7:09 and 8:30 p.m., but survivors including firefighters and police officers insist there were three.
In total in the Twin Cities, hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands damaged, according to Taylor’s research.
The final confirmed tornado hit at 8:30 p.m., destroying homes in Mounds View and southern Anoka County.
During the onslaught, weather officials sounded the civil defense sirens for the first time to indicate severe weather.
“Tornadoes roared like a gang of drunken devils for six hours through the Minneapolis area,” according to the Minneapolis Star.
In Taylor’s second book, “Hidden Revealed: A Sequel Account of the May 6, 1965 Tornado Outbreak,” Mounds View survivor June Peterson, who plans to attend the Wednesday event, described taking cover in the basement of her Knoll Drive home with her husband and children. “I looked up and saw nothing but black,” she recounted.
The final tornado pulverized the Petersons’ home and much of the surrounding neighborhood. One item that did survive was the refrigerator. It had been thrust into the back yard but was upright with all its contents intact, except for two cracked eggs.
June Peterson was struck on the head with a cinder block and suffered long-term vision damage. Other members of the family were also hurt.
As they emerged from the basement to assess the damage, they found a neighbor dead, alongside the road. She had been pierced by a 2-by-4 board. The woman’s 4-year-old daughter also died in the storm. The next day, a family friend discovered the body of the woman’s 1-month-old child buried in rubble in the Petersons’ basement. June Peterson initially thought the baby was a doll.
Another of Peterson’s neighbors was treated for friction burns on the soles of his feet. The tornado had pulled him along the floor, causing the injuries.
A check that had blown from a Mounds View home was found embedded in the side of a garage in Hayward, Wis., more than 100 miles away.
“Of all the damage pictures of neighborhoods I’ve seen, probably the worst of the damage appears to be in Mounds View. There is a whole neighborhood in Mounds View where everything is obliterated,” said Todd Krause, the National Weather Service’s current warning coordination meteorologist.
“There was sheer devastation elsewhere,” he said.
The damage estimate at the time was $52 million, according to press accounts of the era. Of that, Anoka County sustained $36 million.
Real impact difficult to calculate
After speaking with survivors, Taylor is convinced that a dozen or more tornadoes touched down that night. Radar showed two dozen hook echoes, which is a hallmark of tornado-producing supercells, he said. Krause, who has seen recordings of radar from that night, said, “We know a great deal more about tornadoes now and how to do a damage survey. There were probably more tornadoes.”
Another number in flux was the official death total. In 1965 it was 14, including five children under the age of 5. One of the fatalities was a stillborn child. In 1973, the state climatologist and meteorologist changed the toll to 13, Krause said.
“We don’t have any record on how or why the change” was made, Krause said.
Taylor, who interviewed a tornado expert, said the number of people who perished in the longer term from storm-related wounds, including brain and other traumatic injuries, probably was much higher.
“After interviewing many doctors, nurses and other medical staff, these numbers became woefully underreported. There were cases of people dying as late as Christmas in 1965,” Taylor said.
City councils ordered many severely damaged homes bulldozed after the storm. Families struggled with insurance companies but ultimately the communities rebuilt.
“It was a momentous time. It changed the way people looked at storms in that generation. They respected it, feared it,” Taylor said. “Many people felt they were saved by God through all the miraculous stories told. There was a big sense of hope in the aftermath as people pulled together to rebuild their community, schools and churches.”
It also sparked the further development of the weather spotter network across the state.
Today, more than 10,000 weather spotters, trained by the National Weather Service, keep an eye on the sky. Some are firefighters and in law enforcement, but many are volunteers, Krause said. The civil defense sirens that were used are now synonymous with severe weather, Krause said. And there are a multitude of ways to follow severe weather — smartphone, Internet, radio and television news.
“There is a healthy respect. I do still see videos of people walking out their front door with their phone camera. That is unsettling,” Krause said. “There is still an awful lot we don’t know about tornadoes.”
Minnesota is considered to be on the upper end of Tornado Alley, Krause said. Minnesota averaged 45 tornadoes a year from 1991 to 2010, the same as Missouri.
“June is the month we have the most tornadoes. Our deadliest tornadoes have actually been April and May,” Krause said.
The National Weather Service in Chanhassen will be live tweeting the timeline of 1965 events tonight, Wednesday, May 6, at @nwstwincities.
For more on the storm, see Curt Brown’s Minnesota History column, Page B4, Sunday, May 3, or at http://tinyurl.com/lyl8ryv