Tornadoes hit western Minnesota, killing one

People look for scattered items on a property
People look for scattered items on Linda and Gareth Klimek's property Thursday where the house was completely destroyed by a tornado in Otter Tail County, Minn., Wednesday evening.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Updated: 7:15 p.m.

Two tornadoes damaged farms, injured two people and left one person dead in western Minnesota Wednesday evening, as severe storms moved across parts of the Midwest.

Seth Nelson, 30, from Battle Lake, was killed near Dalton when a twister destroyed a large garage where he was working, according to the Otter Tail County Sheriff's Office.

By Thursday afternoon, after hearing stories of how the tornadoes ripped through homes and other property, officials said they were grateful more people weren’t killed or hurt.

“Everybody is accounted for,” Otter Tail County Sheriff Barry Fitzgibbons said during a Thursday briefing. “We don’t believe there’s anybody missing.”

The tornadoes damaged up to seven homes and outbuildings but struck mostly in sparsely populated areas, Fitzgibbons said. Had they not, he added, “we would have potentially more deaths.”

Cleanup operations are underway, and some county roads will be closed to thwart sightseers, said John Lindquist, an Otter Tail County commissioner. He said he’s visited with residents whose property was damaged and “there are some people that are hurting today, physically, mentally.”

‘Whoosh’

Gareth and Linda Klimek saw the tornado warning on television, looked out the window and spotted the tornado barreling toward their house, according to their son, Leon Klimek.

They ran to their basement, huddled next to the washing machine, and prayed.

“They stayed there until everything got ripped up and thrown away and destroyed around them. At some point, the car entered the basement about 2 to 3 feet away from them,” Leon Klimek said.

His parents escaped with cuts and bruises, and a sprained ankle.

Linda Klimek said later that they heard a “whoosh,” and the house above them was gone.

By the time the storm had passed and the Klimeks stood up, they said, first responders were already there.

‘Ready to drop’

The first of the two tornadoes was reported at 5:08 p.m. Wednesday, 6 miles south of Dalton, according to the Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Office. A second was reported at 5:11 p.m., 6 miles south of Dalton and a half-mile from Interstate 94, across the county line in Grant County, traveling northwest.

Greg Gust, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service went out Thursday to assess the damage.

"We're seeing a path that in places is up to 650-700 yards wide,” he said. “We're talking about cornfields in areas that are scoured down to the ground, where it is not only harvesting the corn but plowing the field."

Tom Grover, the mayor of nearby Ashby in Grant County who’s also a local firefighter, said when he got a call to report in shortly after 5 p.m. he clearly saw the tornado just a few miles away.

"It was a very large tornado and it was on the ground and it was coming right towards Ashby, but about a mile-and-a-half or 2 miles out it switched and went a little bit to the northeast and the four houses that were hit, the farm sites that were hit, there were all within a cluster of probably a couple of miles," Grover said.

He said the tornado was on and off the ground for several minutes.

Likely EF-3

The storm was tracked by a number of storm chasers, too. Among them was Brad Nelson, a meteorologist with DTN in Burnsville, Minn., who traveled to western Minnesota for storm-chasing on a day off from work. The tornado was the 100th he's seen.

"This storm went up really, really fast. I mean, there wasn't much time between the initial updraft of the storm and then we watched a lowering form underneath the base of the storm — and it started to produce funnels almost immediately," he said.

"Within 30 minutes or so of that storm going up, it was about ready to drop a tornado,” he added. “Typically, storms like that take two or three hours to mature before they can produce a tornado."

The tornado that caused the fatality is believed to be at least in the EF-3 category, with winds of 136 to 165 mph, the weather service said. It left a 6- to 9-mile trail of damage as it roared northward.

No vehicles were affected as the tornado crossed the interstate, according to the weather service. Other possible tornado activity was reported Wednesday in Colorado as well as parts of Nebraska and Illinois.

Grant County posted on its Facebook page Wednesday night that no damage to county properties had been reported, and pointed all residents' questions about the tornado to the Otter Tail County dispatch center.

Freelance photographer Paul Middlestaedt contributed to this report from Otter Tail County. The story also includes information from the Associated Press.

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