Twin Cities ‘Tornado Swarm’ 49 years ago, severe risk returns this week

Where were you 49 years ago today?

If you were anywhere near the Twin Cities metro, you remember that day vividly.

For me, May 6, 1965 is my first living memory. Our home was within a half mile of the path of the devastating Deephaven Tornado that day.

May 6 1965
A photo taken by Minnetonka resident H. B. Milligan of a tornado crossing to the west of the junction of Hwy 7 and 101 on May 6, 1965. It is believed that this was the tornado that touched down in Chanhassen at 6:27 p.m. and dissipated in Deephaven at 6:43 pm.

A swarm of six tornadoes skipped across the western half of the Twin Cities. Four of the six violent twisters were rated F4 on the Fujita Scale. The intense twisters killed 13 people and injured 683 more.

1965 RevisedTracks3
Twin Cities NWS

Fortunately, May 6 1965 still stands 49 years later as the biggest tornado outbreak in Twin Cities history. Here's an excellent summary of events from the Twin Cities office of the National Weather Service.

Before you keep reading ...

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The May 6, 1965 Tornadoes

The worst tornadoes in Twin Cities history occurred in 1965, with five tornadoes sweeping across the western and northern portions of the 7-county region, and a sixth tornado just outside the metropolitan area. Four tornadoes were rated F4, one was an F3, and the other produced F2 damage. Thirteen people were killed and 683 injured. Many more would have been killed had it not been for the warnings of the U.S. Weather Bureau, local officials, and the outstanding communications by local radio and television stations. Many credit the announcers of WCCO-AM with saving countless lives. It was also the first time in Twin Cities history that civil defense sirens were used for severe weather.

There were two photographs of tornadoes - the Deephaven tornado and the second Fridley tornado were both published in the Minneapolis Tribune. It is unknown whether anybody else took pictures of any of the tornadoes that day.

Recently discovered radar archives of this tornado outbreak are available at the bottom of this page.

Tornado #1 touched down at 6:08 p.m. CST just east of Cologne ( Carver County), was on the ground for 13 miles, and dissipated in the northwestern portion of Minnetrista ( Hennepin County). It was rated an F4, killed three people and injured 175.

Tornado #2 touched down at 6:27 p.m. CST near Lake Susan in Chanhassen ( Carver County) and traveled 7 miles straight north to Deephaven ( Hennepin County). It was rated an F4, was on the ground for 7 miles, but resulted in no injuries or fatalities.

Tornado #3 touched down at 6:34 p.m. CST about 3 miles east of New Auburn ( Sibley County) and moved to just west of Lester Prairie ( McLeod County). On the ground for 16 miles, it was rated an F3, but there were no injuries or fatalities.

Tornado #4 touched down at 6:43 p.m. CST about two miles east of Green Isle (Sibley County), was on the ground 11 miles, and dissipated about two miles southwest of Waconia (Carver County). It was rated an F2, killed one person, and injured 175.

Tornado #5 touched down at 7:06 p.m. CST in the southwesternmost corner of Fridley ( Anoka County), moved across the Northern Ordnance plant, and dissipated just northeast of Laddie Lake in Blaine ( Anoka County). It was on the ground for 7 miles, reached F4 intensity, killed three people and injured 175.

Tornado #6 touched down at 8:14 p.m. CST in Golden Valley, moved across north Minneapolis ( Hennepin County) and into Fridley ( Anoka County), then Mounds View ( Ramsey County), and finally dissipated just west of Centerville ( Anoka County). This was rated an F4, killed six people and injured 158, and was on the ground for 18 miles.

Radar images from the evening of May, 6th, 1965 showing multiple "hook echoes." Twin Cities NWS.

Start of a weather career

If you could hook a DVD, or Netflix to my memory banks, it would play back the details May 6, 1965 today in vivid technicolor. The memory of that day is forever burned into my DNA.

I was a preschooler in 1965. I vividly remember a warm spring afternoon, playing in the backyard sunshine as big puffy white clouds billowed high into the afternoon sky. My older brothers and sister came home from school as the deep thunder started to rumble to the southwest of Deephaven.

The rains hit with ferocity, and then the sky turned an eerie, wicked shade of green. Suddenly, huge irregular shaped chunks of hail the size of a fist came pounding out of the sky. We ran inside and grabbed my older brothers football helmets and put them on so we could collect the hail and put it in the freezer. The dull whack of huge hail smacking you on the head with a football helmet on is one sound you don't forget.

We played like the children we were racing around to pick up the hail -- and fill bowls with impressive hailstones destined for the freezer. The incredible thunder and twisted green sky color made it clear something was very, very wrong.

Suddenly the back porch door flew open. My mother screamed the words I'll never forget.

"You kids get in the basement now. Your father called and said there's a tornado coming!"

My dad worked at City Hall in downtown Minneapolis. Radio chatter from the Minneapolis police scanners made it clear tornadoes and damage were in progress in the southwest metro, heading right for Deephaven.

We scurried into the basement after stuffing bowls of large hail in the freezer, which was conveniently right next to the basement door. I remember looking out of that classic Minnesota small rectangular basement window as the sky swirled violently overhead. What I now know was a rotating wall cloud with an attached tornado spun overhead, tearing up neighborhoods a half mile away with F4 ferocity. In the distance, strange unnatural sounds made it clear very bad things were happening.

Huge maple trees in the field next door swayed violently as if ready to snap at any moment. The wind gushed with frightening force and sound. What I now understand is that the tornado passed dangerously close to the west of our home, and that the rear flank downdraft winds ripped branches off trees in our neighborhood. We were the lucky ones.

In a matter of minutes the whole event was over for us. Additional tornadoes would touch down that evening, including the devastating and deadly F4 Fridley tornado.

We heard stories of widespread damage nearby, The next day we took a drive to Deephaven School and Cottagewood about half a mile away as the crow files. This photo of damage is typical of damage we saw in nearby Cottagewood.

Twin Cities NWS via Robert Lattery.

I remember seeing that devastation and wondering aloud, "What on earth caused this?" From that day on I was hooked. Weather became my life on May 6, 1965.

One of the best collections of photos from the May 6, 1965 tornadoes is Minnetonka Tornado Story in Pictures which sits on my bookshelf in the Weather Lab in Deephaven. If you can get your hands on a copy it's a great historical resource.

Minnetonka toando book

What we learned

As we reflect on May 6, 1965 this week, it's good to remember that a massive tornado swarm can -- and did -- happen in the Twin Cities. The local meteorologists I talk to and work with shudder to think of what will happen the next "family" of tornadic supercells rakes the metro which is now sprawled out and much more densely populated.

Moore. Joplin. Tuscaloosa. Don't think for a second it can't happen in Minneapolis. Or St. Paul.

Mia (Riese) Bremer was a young girl in Fridley that day. She sent me this photo which illustrates greatly just how total the damage was. That's her standing in the closet, which is all that's left of her Fridley home.

Fridley 1965
Closet is all that's left in this Fridley home. Mia (Riese) Bremer

May 6, 1965 was a huge success story in getting the word out that life-threatening weather was imminent. The first and innovative use of Civil Defense Sirens as a severe weather warning tool occurred that day. Broadcast meteorologists were not part of the Twin Cities radio landscape then, but newscasters on local radio played a critical role in saving many lives with timely updates.

I am proud to be a part of a great weather team at Minnesota Public Radio News, where we've made great strides in severe weather coverage the past seven years. We've literally changed the mindset and process for how we cover severe weather at MPR News, and adopted a much more aggressive strategy for breaking weather news. Being on the air live with warnings and updates before and during the North Minneapolis tornado and the huge tornado outbreaks in 2010 are  success stories for us.

Spring like week:  Nice now, thunder later

Our early week spring sunshine is good tonic for the Minnesota weather soul. Temperatures hover in the 60s this week, but warmer air surges north Thursday as a powerful low and warm front swings north.

The low pressure storm brings moisture and instability north. Look for scattered rain and thunder to develop along the warm front as early as late tonight.

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Scattered storms and a severe risk increase Wednesday and especially Thursday.

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NOAA's Storm Prediction Center already paints much of Minnesota in a slight risk for Wednesday.

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Thursday could actually be the more volatile day across Minnesota. Thursday's severe risk looks potentially potent.

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Looking at the maps I can't rule out a few tornadoes Thursday.  Here's the NAM based forecast from for "helicity" which is a measure of shear or spin in the lowest 3,000 meters late Wednesday night into Thursday morning. It shows strong shear working into southern Minnesota as Thursday approaches.

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NOAA's SPC agrees that tornadoes are a threat Thursday across Minnesota.


Stay tuned for potential watches and warnings Wednesday, and especially Thursday.