Tuesday dawned bright and brisk, a blustery day that felt perfectly normal for early March in Minnesota.
The day before, however, was anything but.
The National Weather Service confirmed that two tornadoes touched down in the state Monday night, one in the Sherburne County city of Zimmerman and the other in the Freeborn County city of Clarks Grove. The March 6 twisters blew away — by nearly two weeks — the record for the earliest reported tornado in the state, dating from March 18, 1968, near the southern Minnesota town of Truman.
“It’s very unusual,” said Todd Krause, warning coordinator meteorologist for the weather service in Chanhassen. “The fact that we’ve never had one this early speaks to just how unusual it is.”
Several elements combined for the perfect storm, Krause said, including a strong jet stream and southern winds that brought warm, moist air to the state. But the final ingredient was a direct result of Minnesota’s unusually mild winter: There was no snow on the ground.
“Bare ground allows for higher temperatures. When there’s bare ground, the snow can’t cool the air,” Krause said. “If you have cold air in the last few hundred feet, it’s harder for the tornado to reach the ground.”
No injuries were reported from either twister, but damage was extensive in both locations from funnel clouds that touched down around dinner time Monday night.
In Clarks Grove, about a half-dozen members of the city fire department took a break from a scheduled training session Monday to step outside and watch the approaching storm roll in around 5:45 p.m.
“We saw some pieces of tin fly by,” said Fire Chief Steven Thisius. “And then the pieces of tin got bigger, and then everyone’s eyes got big.” The firefighters scrambled back into the station, taking cover just as the storm ripped off the station’s roof, cracking and buckling its concrete-block walls in several places and blowing out the large door on one of the truck bays.
“If it was any worse, I don’t know if we’d be here,” Thisius said. “It’s nothing I’d ever want to relive again.”
Throughout the city Tuesday, trucks and equipment of all kinds and sizes roared through the streets, carrying loads of branches and debris. The growl of heavy equipment and the whine of chain saws filled the air as dozens of people pitched in to help clean up.
As the storm hit the town from the southwest, it blasted a grain elevator and fertilizer plant, ripping off large sections of the roof and causing other structural damage. Nearby, Tedd and Judy Baumgardt sat in their living room, listening to the radio, when their front windows exploded, sending glass across the room with such force that some of it embedded in the opposite wall. When the Baumgardts finally looked outside, they discovered that their two-car garage and backyard storage shed were gone.
“I wanted to get a new roof on my shed, but this is a ridiculous way to do it,” Tedd Baumgardt said.
Horses rode out storm
Trisha Busse received a weather alert on her phone as she drove from work Monday evening to her home in Orrock Township near Zimmerman. Minutes after Busse and her husband, Greg, arrived home, the sky suddenly turned violent. They hit the basement with their 16-year-old son. Seconds later, at about 6:15 p.m., large trees toppled onto two of their cars.
When they emerged from the basement, they discovered the storm had sheared off the side of the first story of the house, leaving a large hole that allowed passersby to peer into bedroom closets.
“How fortunate are we that it hit on the side,” Trisha Busse said as she toured the house Tuesday. “It could have been just a matter of a few feet.”
Greg Busse spent Tuesday morning sawing felled trees while Trisha salvaged clothes from the bedrooms. Their son, a sophomore at Big Lake High School, still had to go to school — even though the bus couldn’t make it down his street. The family will be living out of a hotel for the next few days until an insurance adjuster can assess the damage.
About a mile away, panels of twisted tin from Jocelyne Walberg’s pole barn roof tumbled through a field. Just before 6 p.m. Monday, as the sky grew pitch black, Walberg gathered her daughter and son-in-law in the basement of her farmhouse.
“The wind sounded like a train,” said Walberg, who counted her blessings that the family home stood relatively unscathed.
Walberg’s husband was driving back from work in Rogers when he saw the ominous clouds and turned back, calling the family to urge them to find shelter. Their three horses galloped to the far corner of the property, where they waited out the storm. “Animals are smart,” she said.
Minnesota was just one of several Midwestern states hit by severe weather Monday. Tornadoes caused major damage across parts of Iowa and Missouri, the weather service said.
Just hours after the mercury topped 60 degrees in the Twin Cities, a cold front brought flurries to the Twin Cities overnight as temperatures fell into the 20s and 30s. Behind the system, temperatures are expected to fall into the 30s for Wednesday and Thursday, more typical for early March. There also is a chance of rain or snow Friday through Monday, the weather service said.
Staff writer Tim Harlow contributed to this report.