Teresa Akerman hunkered down under a table in the basement of her home outside Ashby, Minn., Wednesday afternoon as a tornado took aim at her farm. Shaking, she sent a text message to her daughter to tell her she loved her.
“I didn’t know if I’d be able to say that again,” Akerman, 67, said the day after at least one and possibly two twisters roared across Otter Tail County in west-central Minnesota. “It sounded like a great big wind machine. It was the sound of death.”
Akerman survived unscathed, and her house, aside from the south wall being splattered with mud, grass and water stains, did, too. But others were not so fortunate.
Seth Nelson, 30, of Battle Lake, was killed when a tornado struck a machine shop where he was working, said Lt. Keith Van Dyke of the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office. The shop and a nearby home were “swept off their foundations and blown away,” he said.
Two other people, identified by the Sheriff’s Office as Gareth and Linda Klimek, were injured. They were treated at a hospital and released, Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons said. Their home took a direct hit and was a total loss, according to a fundraising campaign posted Thursday on behalf of the family.
No other injuries were reported and all other residents were accounted for, Fitzgibbons said during a Thursday afternoon news conference.
“If this had been a more populated area, this conversation would be a lot different,” he said.
Some roads near Ashby and Dalton were closed to keep sightseers from coming to gawk at the destruction of seven buildings, including homes and garages.
Otter Tail County Emergency Management Director Patrick Waletzko said the county is working to determine if it can seek financial assistance from the state to help victims. “The recovery is the longest phase of the whole endeavor,” he said.
Storms developed just after 5 p.m. Wednesday and quickly turned severe as they approached Fergus Falls, Dalton and Ashby. The first tornado touched down 6 miles south of Dalton and a second near Interstate 94 in neighboring Grant County.
The tornadoes left a 6- to 9-mile trail of damage, and early indications are that the strongest fell into the EF-3 category, with winds of 136 to 165 miles per hour, the National Weather Service in Grand Forks said.
The Weather Service said it also had reports of tornadoes in Pine Center and Garrison, just west of Lake Mille Lacs.
Akerman’s daughter, Lisa Williams, 44, was cleaning water out of her basement from an earlier storm when skies once again turned menacing. That’s when she saw a twister in the vicinity of her mother’s nearby house. Williams and her husband, Rich, went to check on Akerman and captured cellphone video of the tornado as they drove on Hwy. 82 northwest of Ashby.
Lisa Williams watched as the twister, which at times appeared to be spinning in place, kicked up debris and struck another house. She called her mother and told her the tornado was right behind her house.
Akerman said she took refuge and heard “a sound I never want to hear again,” adding that it was the first time she’d ever seen a tornado. “I don’t want to go through that again.”
Ashby Mayor Tom Grover said at least four rural homes or farmsteads between his town and Dalton, to the northwest, were “pretty much gone.”
“It was devastating,” he said. He watched the tornado head straight for his small town before veering to the northwest at the last moment, sparing the community.
Storms had lost some of their strength before arriving in the metro area early Thursday.
Warnings had expired by 6:15 a.m., but not before bringing strong winds and dropping torrential rain and hail an inch in diameter in Hastings, Isanti and Bloomington. Trees 12 feet in diameter fell in Menomonie, Wis., as storms pushed into western Wisconsin, the Weather Service said.