Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota tornado memories twist through my mind today May 6, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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FLASHBACK TO JULY 24, 2010, between 11 p.m. and midnight. We—my husband, Mom and 16-year-old son—are hunkered down in a car along a Redwood County road in rural southwestern Minnesota north of Walnut Grove. We’ve just left an outdoor pageant showcasing excerpts from the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Now we are on the prairie, in the middle of a storm. Rain rushes in torrential sheets, forcing my husband to pull over and stop. Winds rock the car with ferocity and flatten roadside grass. Flashes of lightning slice through the blackness, revealing swaying trees.

I am terrified, fearful that the wind—which I later learn raged at 70 mph—will toss our car into the ditch, perhaps into water that buffets a section of this roadway. The darkness is so black that I have no idea where we are.

I press my head into the back of the front driver’s seat, praying. I am clutching my son’s sweaty hand.

For 45 minutes we endure the storm. When we arrive at my Mom’s house in my hometown, I am so relieved I could kiss the ground.

I respect storms.

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma's just-published book.

This photo of the Tracy, Minnesota, tornado by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma’s book about that tornado. Book cover image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

On June 13, 1968, Minnesota’s first F5 tornado, the most powerful with wind speeds in excess of 300 mph, ravaged the community of Tracy, the next town west of Walnut Grove and some 30 or so miles from the farm where I then lived. That tornado killed nine and left a lasting imprint upon my impressionable young mind.

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado.

A residential street, once covered in branches and debris, had to be plowed to allow vehicles to pass. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma, Tracy native and author of Out of the Blue, a book about the 1968 Tracy tornado.

Decades later a tornado would strike my childhood farm, taking down a silo and tossing silage wagons like toys.

I respect storms.

On March 29, 1998, multiple devastating tornadoes wreaked destruction upon Comfrey in southwestern Minnesota and St. Peter, some 40 miles west of where I now live. A young boy died.

I respect storms.

In July 2011, high winds partially ripped the roof off St. John’s Lutheran Church in Vesta, the church I attended while growing up. That same day, a tornado struck nearby Belview.

I respect storms.

Visitors to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul can experience the 1965 tornado outbreak in a replica basement of a 1960s rambler. Through a multi-media presentation, that deadly series of tornadoes

Visitors to the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul can experience the May 6, 1965 tornado outbreak in a replica basement of a 1960s rambler. Through a multi-media presentation, visitors can experience those tornadoes in this exhibit titled “Get to the basement.” Those are words I heard as a child and still repeat today whenever tornado warning sirens blare in Faribault.

Today marks 50 years since the biggest tornado outbreak in Twin Cities history. Six twisters—four rated as high as F4 with winds of 166-200 mph—touched down in multiple communities, killing 13 and injuring 683. Interestingly enough, I don’t remember that 1965 tragic tornado event. We may not have had a television yet then. And, at age nine, I likely did not concern myself with something that happened seemingly so far away in “the Cities.” I should have.

I respect storms. Do you?

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


33 Responses to “Minnesota tornado memories twist through my mind today”

  1. Robert Jansen Says:

    You might already know of the poet William Stafford, some of your stories remind me of his poems.

    • Robert, I am truly humbled and honored that you would compare my writing to that of William Stafford, a man who described himself as one of “the quiet of the land.” Thank you for reading my writing.

  2. Dan Traun Says:

    That was quite an account of your experience with storm. Mother Nature can be quite brutal. All natures’ elements command the utmost respect. If you are not careful and/or paying attention Mother Nature will slap you; and sometimes she surrounds you unknowingly and by surprise. I can recall on more than one occasion being waist deep in water fishing for trout in a stream surrounded by bluffs. This is quite a pretty picture until a t-storm is upon you with little notice. The fish biting like crazy obscures any inclination of foul weather. A faint rumble of thunder was barely audible over the sound of water rushing through a trout-rich riffle. The bluff obscured the approaching clouds. I became very afraid when the wind kicked up and trees were blown down around me. Hail was pelting me. I was thankful for a small limestone outcropping to take cover under. To say I was terrified was an understatement. That only happened once; I didn’t think I was going to make it out of there. I do love a nice t-storm; preferably the non-mass-destruction variety. Photographing lightning is challenging, but the results are amazing. Cynthia and I have only tried it a few times. Perfect conditions are far and few between. Mother Nature, even given the technology of today, if very unpredictable.

    • Your storm story definitely trumps mine in its intensity and fear factor. At least I was inside a vehicle. But you, in the open. That had to be terrifying. So thankful you found shelter in that outcropping. I’ve never attempted to photograph lightning.

  3. Beth Ann Says:

    I respect them as well.. The crazy winds that come with tornado like weather are very scary and I have never been out in one but my mom was driving my sister home from college when the bad one in Xenia, Ohio happened in 1974. She was not near it, thank goodness, but it was scary to know that they were out driving in bad weather like that.

    • That would have been frightening to know that your mom and sister were driving in that bad weather. How near was Xenia to your home then?

      A few years ago, at my mom’s 80th birthday party, we had to end the party early due to an approaching storm. There were tornado warnings in neighboring counties to the west. Guests scurried on their way to get ahead of the storm. But many were caught on the road in it, including my eldest. In hindsight, we should have kept everyone at the hall. But, had a tornado occurred, that would not have been safe with no place to take shelter.

  4. Almost Iowa Says:

    Have you visited the “Weather Permitting” exhibit at the History Center in Saint Paul? They have a recreation of a 1960’s basement with a simulated tornado. It is eerily accurate, right down to the cinder block basement walls and the old WCCO broadcast.

    I was put out of work by the 1992 South Minneapolis storm. The tornado touched down on Chicago and Lake street and tossed an MTC bus through the front window of General Parts where I worked at the time. They lost 90% of their stock, not because it was destroyed but because it was knocked out of the boxes and could not be identified.

    Fortunately, the storm struck on the weekend and no one was at work. No one was seriously injured on the bus either.

    At lunch that week, the owner handed me a check for a month’s severance. Two hours later, I had a new job – and a raise.

  5. Oh, you better believe I respect storms. Here in Virginia very few homes have actual basements. They are built with crawl spaces hardly conducive to hiding out from a tornado. One thing I loved about my old house was finding there is a cellar. When those menacing summer tornadoes appear, it is such a comfort to know we can go down there. By the way, as more Yankees move into the Richmond area, they bring with them their demands for a proper basement. We are seeing more and more pop up now.

    • To be without a basement would be frightening. I’m glad you have a cellar in which to seek refuge should a storm descend.

      I find it interesting that you used the word “Yankees.” Is that still commonly used in the South to reference those of us from the North?

      • Not from the north, per se. More the Northeast, I would say. You know, New Yorkers and New Englanders. You all Midwesterners, I’m not sure about! LOL. And it’s only commonly used amongst the older generations. We are becoming just as homogenized as the rest of the country.

      • Thanks for the explanation, from one Midwesterner to a former Midwesterner.

  6. treadlemusic Says:

    I remember the storms that went through Blaine and the surrounding area. I was in college and a friend’s relatives lived in the “bulls-eye” of that storm. One home would be taken, next door, maybe, a small fishing boat would disappear and the next home totally unscathed. Such is the devastating serendipity of a tornado! The physical repairs were accomplished as they always are but the psychological “repairs” are another issue. As you have shared, such “imprinting” never really goes away and resurfaces on a moment’s notice with the possibility of a similar recurrence. How fragile and tenuous is our existence!

  7. Missy's Crafty Mess Says:

    Yes, I have never been personally touched by a tornado. However, I will never forget a tornado that destroyed a childhood friends farm about two miles away from where I grew up. Their home was in splinters and their hogs… they suffered!

  8. I respect storms and mother nature. I have experienced tornados, earthquakes, tropical storms, and wildfires. SCARY Stuff! Puts things into perspective as to what is important and what truly matters in living your life.

  9. Don Says:

    You have brought back many memories. As a boy scout our troop spent days in Tracy helping them clean up the pieces and get their town back together, what a mess it was, and to this day I have vivid memories of the destruction the tornado left. Tornadoes are scary things particularly at night when you cannot see them! I too have been in the basement waiting…………………………….

  10. That must be the most frightening in the world, watching the approaching funnel cloud and not knowing where it will touch down..

  11. LllllllLlLlLLLlLL


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