The last bits of rain were still falling on Hugo when the evening sun emerged low in the western sky, producing a rainbow that shimmered above the town as hundreds of residents evacuated their devastated neighborhoods.
People who live in the Water's Edge and Creek View Preserve developments relocated to Oneka Elementary School, where they gathered in clusters, hugging and sharing stories. Steve Johnson was among them.
"You see a lot of neighbors over here, and the first question you ask is, 'Is your house still standing?' And a lot of times, the answer is no," said Johnson. "But most people have found alternate housing, staying with relatives and friends."
Johnson says when he heard emergency sirens and saw the storm approaching as a wall of water, he gathered his family and climbed under the kitchen table. They emerged with their house still standing, but ventured outside to find neighbors who were less fortunate.
"You could see the path cut through the neighborhood. There were many driveways that didn't have a house left. It had been blown 300 or 400 feet behind the house," Johnson said.
The severe weather came in two waves, which residents say were about 20 minutes apart. Fernando Flores says it was the first storm that caused the most wind damage. And after it passed, residents ventured out.
"We went outside. We looked for how to help the neighbors out. And then all of a sudden we saw this sheet of green coming behind us," Flores said. "So I got the kids and my wife back in the house, and that's when all the hail came. But by that time there wasn't any more wind, it was just a lot of hail."
Hailstones, some the size of golf balls, still littered the area hours after the storm. The afternoon had been warm, even pleasant before the storm arrived.
Bartender Dan Horner, who works at Carpenter's Steakhouse, said a pair of storms hit the restaurant on Highway 61.
"The first storm came though, blew through real quick. And then the hail started that was the second one, about 20 minutes later. Golf ball sized hail was pounding the windows, broke our windows outside of our steakhouse here. Debris flying everywhere, and keeping people away from the windows that were in here at the time. Trying to keep everybody safe is basically what I was thinking," Horner said.
Rachel Otten, cradling an infant on a bench outside Oneka Elementary School, said she was in Hugo visiting her parents and the family had been at a swimming pool. When they heard the sirens, they came inside and turned on the news.
"We heard that it hit Lino Lakes and was just about to hit Hugo. And we started seeing siding come flying by. So we ran into the closet," said Otten. "At my parents' house -- that's where we were at -- six of the houses behind them got demolished to the ground. And my husband and my father ran out and tried to save people under the debris."
There was a consensus among the storm victims that help was speedy and abundant, and came from both emergency personnel and neighbors. Bruce Mikres says between the storms he helped clear a garage door off his neighbor's car.
"There was people here right away. I was amazed how fast the guys were here," said Mikres. "There were police where all the devastation was, anyway. And people were all helping everybody. That's the way a neighborhood's supposed to work, you know."
Hugo city administrator Mike Ericson said the losses at Creekview Preserve neighborhood and a nearby development could have been much worse.
"When we designed the neighborhood originally, we placed a tornado siren in that neighborhood. One fatality is enough, but we think that tornado siren saved the lives of many," Ericson said.
City officials say 250 emergency personnel from 10 jurisdictions came to Hugo, a community of 12,000.
Some of those helping to organize the response had their own harrowing tales, particularly Hugo's Public Works Director Chris Petree.
Petree was at work in City Hall not long after his family had huddled in the basement, listening to the tornado destroy their home.
"The first thing that happened was all the windows in the back of the house blew in. And then you could see the floor right above us start to lift, and just hear tearing and ripping, glass breaking and everything else when it was right over the top of us," said Petree.
"It seemed like forever it lasted, but it was probably 30 seconds or something like that that it lasted."
Petree described the scene in Hugo after the storm as surreal.
But he says his wife and daughter and the family dog are all safe, so he feels he needs to put his personal feelings on hold for the time being to help the city he works for begin the task of cleaning up and rebuilding after the tornado.
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