3 dead as tornadoes tear across Minnesota

Wadena tornado damage
A tornado ripped through Wadena, Minn. on June 17, 2010.
Photo courtesy Lacey Martinson

Tornadoes ripped across Minnesota on Thursday evening, killing at least three people and injuring dozens more as homes were flattened, trees toppled and a gas station destroyed.

Some of the hardest-hit areas were in the northwest part of the state, where two of the deaths were reported.

One person is confirmed dead in Almora, a small town of about 20 people, after a tornado destroyed the home of an elderly couple. At least two people were injured. Brittney Schulke of Almora told The Daily Journal that her grandmother, Margie Schulke, was killed and that her grandfather, Norman Schulke, suffered two broken shoulders.

Polk County Sheriff's officials said that a man died in the northwestern city of Mentor after a tornado ripped through a gas station at about 6:30 p.m. Three other people were injured.

Freeborn County officials also reported a death related to the tornadoes.

Uprooted tree
A large tree was uprooted in Wadena, Minn.
Photo courtesy Lacey Martinson

Some of the worst damage appears to be in Wadena, a city of about 4,000, where a large tornado struck at about 5 p.m. Eyewitnesses described a chaotic scene with debris strewn across the city, and roads jammed with people looking for loved ones.

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Mayor Wayne Wolden said sirens gave plenty of warning. He said many people were in the town for an all-school reunion. Wadena is northeast of Almora and both towns are about 70 miles southeast of Fargo, N.D.

Twenty people were treated for injuries at the Wadena hospital, mostly for bumps and bruises, nursing supervisor Kathy Kleen said.

Crews worked into the evening to control dozens of gas leaks. Wadena's community pool was destroyed, the high school "extremely busted up" and the community center beyond repair, Wolden said.

His wife, Lori Wolden, said houses were "half-gone" and "there's no trees" in the southwest part of the town.

As of Thursday night, there was still a major gas leak in the southwest part of the city. Numerous power lines were down and power was out in several sections of town, according to the mayor.

Wadena tornado damage
Houses in Wadena, Minn. damaged by a tornado that ripped through the city on June 17, 2010.
Photo courtesy Lacey Martinson

Wadena resident Jerry Schmidt said his house was spared, but he said the entire southwestern part of the city was hit hard.

"It looks like a war zone," he said. "It looks like a bomb zone. It looks like Dresden or something, those old World War II movies. It's just really bad."

Steve Fosness, of Otter Tail, was staying at AmericInn Lodge and Suites in Wadena. "Trees down everywhere, some tin roofs blowing off there's junk blowing everywhere, garbage and everything," he said shortly after the tornado struck.

The local National Guard armory was opened to provide people a place to go, and the Red Cross was on hand to help. City officials say Gov. Pawlenty's office has offered to help the city in any way that's needed.

Emergency personnel, including firefighters, law enforcement officers and ambulances from about 30 neighboring jurisdictions responded to the scene.

Severe damage was also reported in the city of Kiester in Faribault County in southeastern Minnesota, where a tornado at least a half mile wide struck shortly after 6 p.m.

Funnel Cloud
A funnel cloud forms near the Grand Forks airport on Thursday, June 17, 2010.
Kevin Skaggs

The Salvation Army sent volunteers to Wadena and Kiester Thursday evening to provide food to clean-up crews and help displaced residents find shelter. Spokeswoman Annette Bauer said the teams plan to house people in nearby hotels.

The violent weather was widespread. The National Weather Service reported other tornado touchdowns in several cities across the state.

As of late Thursday night, NOAA's Storm Prediction Center listed 35 tornado reports in the state of Minnesota Thursday. Some of these may be multiple reports of the same tornado from different observers.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the state's emergency management director, Kris Eide, planned to visit the Wadena and Albert Lea areas Friday to meet with local officials and survey the damage.

"Our emergency management officials have been working closely with local officials and we stand ready to assist in every way needed," the governor said in a statement. "Tomorrow we will visit the areas hit hardest by these tornadoes to ensure that the response is swift and comprehensive."

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Wreckage outside Alexandria
Wreckage outside Alexandria, Minn. after a storm went through the area.
Stephanie Dobson

MPR reporter Tom Robertson contributed to this report from Wadena. Associated Press writers Jeff Baenen, Steve Karnowski and Doug Glass contributed to this report from Minneapolis.