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50 years since 1965 Twin Cites tornado outbreak

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It's a sound all Minnesotans dread. For me it's a sound I'll never forget on the day of my first living memory.

May 6, 2015 marks 50 years since the biggest tornado outbreak in Twin Cities history. Fifty years ago Wednesday civil defense sirens blared for the first time during severe weather in Minnesota as a tornado swarm bearing six twisters tore across the west metro.

Four of the six violent twisters were rated F4 on the Fujita Scale. The devastating twisters killed 13 people and injured 683 more. The damage left behind by the tornado was a shocking first for many Twin Cities residents.

Here's a great look at some rare original 8mm film of the damage in Fridley after the 1965 tornadoes.

Here's another perspective. Mia (Riese) Bremer was a young girl in Fridley that day. She sent me this photo which shows just how extensive the damage was. That’s her standing in the closet, which is all that’s left of her Fridley home. This is why tornado and structural experts tell us to take cover in an "interior room" if you don't have a basement.

Minnesotans have long weather memories. For those too young to remember 1965, The Minnesota Historical Society's "Get to the Basement!" section of the Weather Permitting exhibit recreates the infamous 1965 tornado outbreak for the children of today.

Get to basement 1965
Minnesota Historical Society

Super outbreak

Six tornadoes in the Twin Cities areas was unprecedented, and thankfully remains unmatched as of today. The fact that 4 of the 6 twisters were rated F4 of the Fujuta scale with winds approaching 200 mph is incredible.

Fujita-Scale
NOAA

May 6, 1965 was an Oklahoma style outbreak in Minnesota.

Here's a detailed breakdown of the six tornadoes that skipped across the west metro that day from the Twin Cities National Weather Service.

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.

29 May6-1965-507
Fridley damage via Twin Cities NWS.

Innovations in severe weather warning

The tornado outbreak of May 6, 1965 pioneered several firsts in severe weather coverage for Minnesota. It was the first time civil defense sites were used to warn for severe weather. Some innovative quick thinking people probably saved many lives by blowing the sirens that day.

The Twin Cities office of the U.S. Weather Bureau (now National Weather Service) did an amazing job interpreting crude radar images to transmit warnings that day.

May 6, 1965 was also huge radio and TV success story in getting the word out that life-threatening weather was imminent. 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.

Newscasters such as Dick Chapman at WCCO Radio are also properly credited with delivering updates that may have saved many lives that day.

Here's more perspective from the Twin Cities NWS on why some quick out of the box thinking saved lives that day.

 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.

Birth 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.

1965 Fridley damage

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.

That day ultimately lead me to a 30-year weather career that includes several years at WCCO-TV in Minneapolis working along side Twin Cities weather legends Bud Kraehling and Mike Fairbourne...

1 2 3 WCCO promo photo
WCCO-TV

and WGN-TV with Chicago weather legend Tom Skilling in the Chicago Weather Center as the first meteorologist for the nationally televised WGN Morning News.

WGN2
WGN TV - Chicago

These days I am proud to lead a great weather team at Minnesota Public Radio News. We've made great strides in severe weather coverage the past eight 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 in May 2011 and the big tornado outbreak in June 2010 are success stories for us.

Huttner-Wurzer
Cathy Wurzer and Paul Huttner at an MPR event.

The huge coverage footprint of MPR News network stations in Minnesota means we are literally the only single source for weather information that covers the entire state.

MPR map2
Minnesota Public Radio

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 Huttner Weather Lab. If you can get your hands on a copy it’s a great historical resource.

Minnetonka toando book

What we've 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.

On this 50th anniversary week of the biggest tornado outbreak in Twin Cities history I reached out to local tornado researcher and urban tornado expert Dr. Kenny Blumenfeld for some perspective. Kenny is a Hazardous Weather Research Specialist with Hennepin County Emergency Management.

kwnny blumentfeld
Kenny Blumenfeld

Kenny has some great perspective on how we put the events of May 6, 1965 into context looking back, and forward.

Hi Paul,

The May 6th 1965 tornadoes pose some fascinating challenges we may never solve--how many tornadoes were there really? How many were on the ground simultaneously? Was some of the damage attributable to non-tornadic winds?

But even without the complete information, we know that it was a major event, with multiple tornadoes ranking high on the damage scale and a creating big damage and casualty footprint. The fact that we haven't really had a repeat in the Twin Cities makes it difficult to communicate risk, because we have so many people who have never seen anything like that evening and therefore cannot comprehend it. I can't really comprehend it, and I have spent an unusual amount of time trying to!  But the risk of something resembling a repeat is very real. The weather has not stopped making tornadoes, and in fact has given Minnesota plenty of major, multiple-killer tornado outbreaks since 1965. There is zero evidence--and I mean zero--that our area is somehow immune to another one. We of course don't know when then next one will be, which is why some of us get nervous whenever the charts start pointing to major tornado potential close to our heavily populated areas.

Sincerely,

Kenny

As we look back on a historic weather day 50 years ago, it's good to maintain a high level of situational awareness for the next major Minnesota weather event.