'Historic' southern Minn. storm: Two tornadoes confirmed, damage surveys continue

A building heavily damaged by a storm.
Wreckage from Arcadian Bank lines a street following a severe storm in Hartland, Minn., on Thursday.
Tim Evans for MPR News

Updated: 4:30 p.m.

The National Weather Service has confirmed at least two tornadoes touched down in southern Minnesota on Wednesday night, in Hartland and near Lewiston — the state’s first December tornadoes on record.

The region also saw hurricane-force straight-line winds that downed trees and utility lines, leaving one man dead in Olmsted County.

The Rochester Post Bulletin reported the 65-year-old man was killed Wednesday when a tree fell on him and his truck. The man, Keith Alan Dickman, was outside smoking a cigarette around 8 p.m. when he was struck, the newspaper reported. He later died at a hospital.

Residents in hard-hit areas spent Thursday working to assess damage from the storms. And utility crews worked to repair outages that knocked out power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses at the peak in the storms’ wake.

Several thousand customers remained without power across southern Minnesota as of late Thursday afternoon — with the city of Stewartville south of Rochester among the hardest-hit areas. People's Energy Cooperative said the damage in that area was "extensive and severe," including snapped or toppled poles along transmission lines.

With temperatures forecast to drop into the teens Thursday night, the city of Stewartville opened a shelter for anyone needing a warm place to stay, at Bear Cave Intermediate School

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Meteorologists remained astonished by the late-season storm Thursday, saying it could have been much worse in the summer.

“A historic, record-breaking system, for sure,” said Mike Kurz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis.

“Things could have been a whole lot worse had it been in the middle of summer with trees leafed out and more susceptible to damage,” Kurz said. “It was bad enough just without that, but for this being in mid-December with these kinds of ingredients, it was just remarkable from a meteorological standpoint."

Tornadoes confirmed in Lewiston, Hartland

The National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis., confirmed a EF-0 tornado struck Wednesday just southeast of Lewiston, Minn., in Winona County about 40 miles east of Rochester. 

An EF-0 rating indicates wind speeds of 65 to 85 mph.

On Wednesday night, weather spotters had reported "significant" damage to a home about four miles southeast of Lewiston, as well as other buildings damaged along County Highway 25 in the area, just after 8 p.m. Power outages were reported in the city of Lewiston after the storms moved through.

A few minutes later and a few miles farther to the southeast, a semi-truck was reported blown over on Interstate 90 near the State Highway 43/Winona exit.

Later in the day Thursday, the National Weather Service’s Twin Cities office confirmed another tornado touched down Wednesday night in Hartland in Freeborn County, about 10 miles northwest of Albert Lea.

The office reported late Thursday afternoon that its survey team was still working to determine the path and strength of the tornado.

Power and cleanup crews were working their way through Hartland a day after the storm, where it damaged a number of historic main street commercial buildings, including a bank. A two-block strip of downtown was littered with debris in the wake of the storm.

Freeborn County emergency manager Rich Hall said power was still out Thursday morning throughout the town as temperatures were steadily dropping. But he said other key utilities, like sanitary sewers, were still online.

Hall credited early warnings from the National Weather Service with preparing people for the storm and averting any injuries.

Hartland resident Noah Nielson said the small tight-knit community spent Wednesday evening and Thursday morning checking in on each other and cleaning the debris from their yards and properties. 

“We're all doing fine. This is something we probably will never see again during this time of the year, and we'll get through it together. Right now, it's just unbelievable,” Nielson said.

Photographer Tim Evans said damage is spotty in the town.

“Fortunately, most of the town is OK … The bank that is essentially totaled. There is a house that was very badly damaged,’’ he said. “I think the garage from across the street must have been struck and was essentially thrown into the living room of that house.”

The Weather Service also confirmed at least two tornadoes in Wisconsin — in Stanley and near Neillsville — as well as another in northwest Iowa, near Rudd.

Police in Stanley, Wis., 30 miles northeast of Eau Claire, Wis., posted photos of damaged buildings, blocked roads, and power poles snapped in the middle and hanging by their wires.

No injuries were reported.  

Power outages reported in storm’s swath

Xcel Energy reported Thursday afternoon that about 10,000 of customers were still without power in its Minnesota and western Wisconsin service areas.

At its height, Xcel Energy said nearly 90,000 of its customers in Minnesota lost power for at least part of Wednesday night. The company said it had fielded more than 450 employees and contractors to work on getting power back.

The utility continued warning people to be aware of downed lines, and to stay away from power equipment and lines.

Austin Utilities on Wednesday evening reported a "whole town outage" for the southern Minnesota city of about 26,000 people in the immediate wake of the storms. Power was restored by late Wednesday night.

The wind damage also extended into northern Minnesota, where Minnesota Power reported nearly 1,000 outages in the wake of the storm, although they had cut that number significantly by Thursday morning.

Nosediving temperatures send vehicles sliding

Icy overnight conditions left the Minnesota State Patrol busy. Troopers responded to 121 crashes, with one fatality and one serious injury. Troopers also attended to several jack-knifed semi-tractor trailers and another 49 spin-outs and vehicles off the road.

The weather service said there were also funnel clouds reported near La Crescent and Harmony, and scattered reports of winds that topped 80 mph in southeastern Minnesota on Wednesday night.

The confirmed tornadoes are the latest ever recorded in Minnesota — surpassing the previous mid-November record for the latest in the year for a tornado in the state.

Kurz said radar had indicated some possible tornadoes Wednesday night, but because of the darkness it was difficult for anyone on the ground to see what was happening. 

He added that reports of straight-line winds were remarkable with the area reporting the most hurricane-force wind gusts (topping 75 mph) since 2004. That included a 78-mile-an-hour wind gust recorded by instruments in Rochester. A handful of public reports from southeastern Minnesota had gusts topping 80 mph. 

The unusual storms cut a swath through the greater Midwest Wednesday.

The National Storm Prediction Center said there were at least 55 such reports, exceeding even the devastating derecho storm that struck the central U.S. in 2020. A derecho is a line of straight-lined-wind storms that accompany fast-moving severe thunderstorms.

“It’s just unheard of to be surpassing some of those large, intense, summer thunderstorm complexes — to be surpassing that in December is just remarkable,” Kurz said.