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Tornado shows how a few seconds can save a life

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Mike McIlheran is an amateur Ham radio operator. He was the first on-the-ground weather spotter Sunday to report that the tornado was kicking up debris in North Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

People who find themselves in the path of a tornado are sometimes shocked by how little time they have to respond. In the case of the tornado that hit north Minneapolis on Sunday, residents had at most eight minutes to find shelter after officials activated the first tornado sirens.

Check out different ways to get involved in cleanup efforts or a list of resources available for those the tornado effected.

Those who didn't hear the warning sirens described being jolted from naps and having conversations with neighbors as the tornado descended rapidly upon them.

Given the speed of the tornado, the emergency alert system in the Twin Cities may have worked as well as possible. But it is not a perfect system, and the National Weather Service is reviewing how it worded its tornado warning for Minneapolis.

The storm showed how, even when meteorologists and emergency personnel are doing their job to the best of their ability, fast-moving tornadoes can appear with little warning.

Mall parking lot photo
Mike McIlheran points to the sky over North Minneapolis where he saw a huge rotating wall cloud. The tornado dropped part of a shed in the parking lot in front of McIlheran.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

National Weather Service officials issued a warning for Anoka, Hennepin and Ramsey counties within minutes of seeing the tornado develop on radar. Within six minutes of receiving the tornado alert, major radio and television stations in the Twin Cities metro area interrupted their programming to announce the warning. 

By that point, the tornado was already bearing down on Ester Carroll's north Minneapolis house. She hadn't heard the sirens, and she wasn't listening to a radio or television.

"It was no time to do anything," Carroll said. "If you were in it, you got caught in it." 

Sunday's upper 60s temperatures didn't seem like the sort of weather that would spawn a tornado. Carroll had no inkling of the possibility as she went about her day visiting with neighborhood friends. 

Officials at the National Weather Service office in Chanhassen were aware as early as Sunday morning of the potential for severe weather later in the day. At 8 a.m., meteorologists revised their forecast to include a moderate risk of severe weather that afternoon. As the day progressed, a worrisome spin developed in the winds of the upper atmosphere, causing even more concern. 

About noon, Chanhassen meteorologists joined a conference call with colleagues at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. As a result of that call, at 12:07 p.m., the National Weather Service put out a tornado watch for the entire southeastern quarter of Minnesota, including the Twin Cities. Two hours later, thunderstorms began rolling through the southwest part of the metropolitan area.

Charles Powless, Kari Andrews and Melissa Shipp
North Minneapolis residents Charles Powless, Kari Andrews and Melissa Shipp are roommates. Powless and Andrews were in their house and didn't hear the sirens before the tornado hit. Shipp was riding a city bus on her way home and did hear the sirens.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

Meteorologist Jim Taggart was watching radar at the Chanhassen office that afternoon when a thunderstorm just north of Eden Prairie caught his eye about 2 p.m. Within the span of a few minutes, Taggart said, the rotation inside the storm became much tighter. Tight rotation is one indication that a tornado could be forming.

"Just like you're looking at a drain spout or something like that, you can see the tight circulation with it," he said. "That's indicative for tornado formation." 

Radar is only one tool in tornado detection. On the ground weather observers are also needed to confirm what technology suggests. Hundreds of trained spotters, many of them also amateur ham radio operators, were on duty throughout the metro area that afternoon.

While Taggert was watching the storm start to rotate on his radar screen in Chanhassen, a weather spotter called, confirming the rotation was visible in a massive wall cloud that was now over St. Louis Park. At that point, Taggert knew a tornado could be forming — though it didn't appear to be on the ground just yet. 

The Weather Service decided to issue a tornado warning immediately. As the warning specifics were being compiled by a computer, Warning Coordination Meteorologist Todd Krause began using a special radio that allows him to speak directly to county and city emergency officials. At 2:10 p.m., Krause told them to activate their tornado sirens. 

Krause said he couldn't have delivered the information faster.

Ester Carroll
North Minneapolis resident Ester Carroll was visiting her neighbor when the tornado hit her apartment building. She didn't hear the sirens, but she knew something was wrong when her ears kept popping during her conversation.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

"The circulation of the storm didn't even show up until maybe about three or four minutes before we issued the warning," he said. "And a few minutes later it was on the ground in St. Louis Park."

Officials with the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office say they activated tornado sirens, including those in north Minneapolis, within 45 seconds of receiving the Weather Service warning. 

Mike McIlheran, a weather spotter, heard the sirens as he drove to an abandoned mall near his home in Brooklyn Center. He picked the mall location because the large, empty parking lot surrounding the structure gave him a good view of the sky over north Minneapolis.

As McIlheran got out of his car, he turned his gaze to the southwest where the rotating wall cloud had last been reported.

"As I did, there just was a very distinct wall cloud. You couldn't tell how far down it was actually going. You couldn't tell if it was actually on the ground because of the trees over here."

Then a minute or so later, as the storm moved into north Minneapolis, he saw pieces of lumber flying through the air. 

Future Paskins
Sirens woke up Future Paskins from a nap. The North Minneapolis woman gathered her two children and headed for the basement. But she decided to peek out her front door first to see if she could see the tornado. She says she's lucky it didn't suck her out of her house.
MPR Photo/Lorna Benson

He estimates it was shortly after 2:15.

"All of a sudden, as I'm standing here debris started falling out here," McIlheran said. "And there was actually somebody's small shed and pieces of it landing out here in the parking lot." 

While McIIheran was watching the storm move into north Minneapolis, Ester Carroll was visiting her next-door neighbor's apartment.

Carroll said she never heard the tornado sirens. But she did notice that her ears kept popping as she was talking.   "I just knew it was something wrong with the popping in the ears, and I'm on the ground," she said. "And we just took off running." 

Carroll, who made it safely to her basement, can hardly believe how little time she had.

Charles Powless is also unnerved by his close call. The north Minneapolis man was taking a nap when suddenly his house started shaking.

"The windows started caving in," he said. "I yelled 'everybody run for the basement.' "  

Powless didn't hear the sirens either. But he did know about a tornado watch that afternoon because he saw a cell phone alert before he took his nap. He plans to buy a weather radio to make sure he's more aware the next time a tornado warning is issued for his neighborhood.

Unlike some of her neighbors, Future Paskins did hear the sirens. They woke her up from a nap. But she didn't rush to the basement. As she collected her two children and made her way past her front door, she decided to peek outside to see if she could see a tornado. 

"We opened the door and there it was," Paskins said. "It was up in the air, and I couldn't believe it." 

Paskins said the wind was so strong that she was lucky to be able to pull herself back inside the house. 

"Just by the grace of God, it didn't blow me out and sweep me up," she said.

Paskins made it to shelter. But some people within earshot of the sirens did not respond to any of the warnings. As weather spotter Mike McIlheran watched the tornado toss debris across Highway 100, he also noticed that many people weren't paying any attention to the sky or the wailing sirens.

"I stood here watching cars going up and down the highway," McIlheran said. "I saw kids out playing soccer in the field near my home there. Nobody was taking cover."

Even some people who took the tornado situation seriously said they didn't take cover that afternoon because they mistakenly thought the warning and the sirens didn't apply to them. The problem was traced to the copy that was written by the National Weather Service and posted on its web site and broadcast in the Twin Cities. The weather service did not mention Minneapolis in the list of cities in the warning area.

However, the warning information did cover the Minneapolis area in other ways. For example, the warning included east central Hennepin County, which includes north Minneapolis. The city also appeared on maps displaying the storm's path. But for people not familiar with the boundaries of the county or who didn't see the map, it could have been confusing.

National Weather Service officials say Minneapolis should have been included in the city list and it's reviewing why it was omitted.