Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A Minnesotan reflects on tornado terror during Severe Weather Awareness Week April 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 1:21 PM
Tags: , , ,

I bought this tornado video for my brother Brian, who is fascinated by twisters, at a garage sale several years ago. I've never given it to him, nor have I watched the film.

I FIGURE THAT sometime tonight, when I wish I was peacefully sleeping, I’ll dream about tornadoes. I’ll likely awaken, terrified and shaken.

Tornadoes terrorize my sleep all too often. It takes only news about a tornado or viewing a photo or television footage of a tornado to trigger the night-time trauma.

Today, with warning sirens sounding state-wide during Severe Weather Awareness Week, the atmosphere in my bedroom is primed for stormy weather.

Now, you’re likely wondering why I’m so inclined to having nightmares about tornadoes. The answer is simple: the June 13, 1968, Tracy, Minnesota, tornado. The twister was an F5, the most powerful, with winds of 261- 318 mph.

I was 11 ½ years old when the destructive tornado struck the southwestern Minnesota prairie town, killing nine and injuring 150. If not for the fact that I lived within 25 miles of Tracy, the tornado likely would not have impacted me so much.

But, I remember because my dad, who claims he watched the twister from our barn, drove our family to view the devastation. I can’t recall much other than a twisted, mangled mess of debris, a tossed boxcar and snapped trees. And, somewhere, tucked in the recesses of my memory, I store this tidbit about a piece of straw driven through a board. True or not, I’m unsure.

The fact that nine people died in Tracy haunted me and remains with me to this day. As a child every strong wind storm and every tornado watch or warning sent fear shivering through my body.

Then in 1979 (or 1980, my mom and I can’t recall the exact year), fear became reality. The Redwood County farm where I grew up was struck by a tornado. I was grown and gone, living and working in Gaylord as a newspaper reporter, when I got the call from home. The storm had partially toppled a silo, tossed silage wagons about in the field, and wrenched a railing from the house, among other damage.

Fortunately for my family, my dad, who would have typically been in the barn at that early evening hour, had left to get my sister from nearby Wabasso. My mom, home alone, recalls seeing the top of a tree bend and touch the earth. She saw debris—probably that railing—fly past the window as she descended the basement stairs.

So, now you understand why I don’t take tornado warnings lightly. For years, I freaked out whenever tornado sirens sounded. Then I became a mom and realized that I needed to curb those fears for the sake of my children. I didn’t always accomplish that. But I tried.

Some of the 46 tornadoes featured in the video.

OUT OF CURIOSITY, I checked today on Minnesota tornado statistics, from 1950 – 2005, compiled by the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office in the Twin Cities. Polk County in northwestern Minnesota has had the most tornadoes, 47, during those years. That follows with 42 in Otter Tail County, three counties to the south.

Counties with 30 or more twisters include Stearns and Kandiyohi (39); Freeborn (37); St. Louis (31); and Nobles (30).

In Redwood County, my home county, there have been 23 or 24, depending on which statistic page you view on the weather service Web site. Only one Redwood County tornado-related death was recorded in those 55 years, on August 4, 1958.

Rice County, my current county of residence, has had 17 – 21 twisters, again depending on which page you view.

But the one fact I find most interesting is this: Minnesota’s only two F5 tornadoes—the most powerful—occurred in adjoining southwestern Minnesota counties. On June 13, 1968, the F5 tornado struck Tracy in Lyon County killing nine. Twenty-four years and three days later, on June 16, 1992, an F5 twister struck just 30 miles away in Chandler in Murray County. One person died and 35 were injured.

Now after doing all this tornado thinking and research, I expect tonight that I will be chased by tornadoes.

What are your worries related to tornadoes? Have you experienced a twister? I would like to hear your concerns and stories. Please consider submitting a comment to Minnesota Prairie Roots.

And, when those test warning sirens sound this afternoon and again this evening, have a plan to keep yourself safe.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling