Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Memories of the June 13, 1968, Tracy tornado: “Pain, anguish and blood…” June 12, 2013

HE DOESN’T RECALL the details like it was yesterday.

Yesterday, after all, was 45 years ago.

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, then 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town on the evening of June 13, 1968. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. Copyrighted photo courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Eric Lantz.

But for Mankato resident Steve Ulmen, certain memories of the aftermath of the deadly Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968, stick with him.

He was only 22 then, a college student and a senior member of the Mankato Civil Air Patrol squadron dispatched on a search and rescue mission to Tracy 90 miles away in southwestern Minnesota. They were the first responders, handling crisis management until other local and state officials arrived.

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 Tracy tornado.

Ulmen remembers entering Tracy, feeling overcome by the sheer devastation. The F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, killed nine and injured 125. Destruction was massive.

“It looked like we were driving into a dump site, or a burned out slum, or what I would imagine a bombed out city would have looked like after World War II,” Ulmen recalls.

With experience as a hospital orderly, he was assigned to the emergency room at the Tracy hospital—removing victims from ambulances and placing them on gurneys and moving others around.

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

“There were victims coming in and lying on stretchers even in the hallways, as it was a small hospital,” Ulmen remembers. “Some were suffering from fractures, some from cuts and scratches. All were in one degree of shock or another and needed assistance and someone to talk to them and try and calm them down.

“There was pain, anguish, and blood, that I remember. As long as casualties kept coming in, we stayed on duty.”

The CAP squadron, comprised of cadets (high school age, 18 and under) to supervising senior members, volunteered for several days in the ravaged community. Among other duties, the patrol established a communications system based out of “an old military surplus deuce and a half 4-wheel drive vehicle” equipped with “radios of every description.”

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

Ulmen remembers the satisfaction he felt in helping those in distress.

Among his memories, Ulmen recalls a particular incident, one he still wonders about now 45 years later. “I was driving either my vehicle or an emergency vehicle, I forget which, and I went through an intersection. The stop sign was bent and twisted from the tornado and wasn’t pointing at the street I was on; it looked like it was pointed at another street. Nevertheless, the local cop saw me run the stop sign, pulled me over, and gave me a ticket,” Ulmen says. “Some thanks for coming all the way from Mankato and volunteering my service to a community in distress. My superiors were not impressed with this either, but I ended up having to pay the ticket as I recall.

“It is funny what you remember from 45 years ago.”

FYI: The community of Tracy is marking the 45-year anniversary of the deadly tornado with special events on Thursday, June 13. Click here to learn more in a post published here several days ago.

To learn more about Steve Ulmen, who served with the CAP for 17 years until he was about 27, click here. Ulmen, who is retired after 34 years of working in the corrections field, is also a published writer. He’s written a western screenplay, later rewritten and published as his first western novel, Toby Ryker. He then published a sequel, Deadwood Days. His most recent works include a book of historical fiction, Blood on the Prairie—A Novel of the Sioux Uprising (actually the first book in the Toby Ryker trilogy), and Bad Moon Arising, a fictional story based on his experiences as the first probation officer in LeSueur County beginning in 1969.

Ulmen and his wife of 42 years, Ida Mae, live in Mankato, his hometown.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Remembering the June 13, 1968, killer tornado in Tracy, Minnesota June 10, 2013

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

Eric Lantz, then 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town on June 13, 1968. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Lantz was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. Copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with original copyright retained by Lantz.

TORNADO WARNING. Those two weather words, more than any other, cause me to panic. For good reason.

I was not quite twelve when an F5 tornado, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, struck the nearby community of Tracy on June 13, 1968. The twister left nine dead, 125 injured and buildings demolished.

I remember, a day or two afterward, our family piling into our Chevy for the 25-mile drive through southwestern Minnesota farm country to view the devastation. Twisted trees. Flattened homes and businesses. Boxcars haphazardly tossed.

This photo by the Tracy Headlight Herald shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado.

This photo by the Tracy Headlight Herald shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado. Photo courtesy of Scott Thoma.

A catastrophic scene like that impresses upon a young mind a deep fear and respect for the power of a tornado.

Added to the visual impact was my father’s spotting of the tornado from our farm those many miles to the north and east as he did the evening milking. He thought the twister was much nearer. Decades later, a less severe tornado would hit the farm place, and the community, where I grew up. Two summers ago, severe winds also ravaged my hometown of Vesta.

This Thursday, the residents of Tracy and others will gather to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Tracy tornado touchdown.

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

The photo by Eric Lantz illustrates the cover of Scott Thoma’s book.

Tracy native Scott Thoma of Willmar, who wrote Out of the Blue, a book about the Tracy tornado, is among those on the Tracy Tornado Memorial Committee and the coordinator for Thursday’s program. The June 13 event will feature an evening of remembrance and fundraising and a coming together of community.

At 7:03 p.m., the moment the killer twister touched down in Tracy, attendees will honor the nine who died with a moment of silence in Central Park. Thoma will read their names and a bell will toll for each: Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harnden, 75; Barbara Holbrook, 50; Ellen Morgan, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; Paul Swanson, 60; Walter Swanson, 47; Nancy Viahos, 2; and Otelia Werner, 75.

Longtime resident, the Rev. Homer Dobson, will “say a few words,” Thoma says.

A photographer for the Tracy Headlight Herald captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School.

A photographer for the Tracy Headlight Herald captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School. Photo courtesy of Scott Thoma.

I expect the commemoration will be an emotional event, and rightly so. Even with the passage of nearly five decades, grief lingers. And each time a tornado devastates a community and lives are lost, such as in Moore, Oklahoma (struck, like Tracy, by an F5), memories resurface, fear rises.

Besides remembering the nine, the community will continue raising funds for a new tornado memorial to replace the one falling into disrepair. Over $10,000 have been raised with about $5,000 more needed for the six-foot high black granite monument that will sit along U.S. Highway 14 near the “Tornado Tree” sculpture. That steel tree, built in 1989, replicates the original tornado tree, a gnarled elm that withstood the forces of the twister.

An artist's rendering of the tornado monument. The words on the bench will read "Tracy Tornado Monument" and an engraving of Eric Lantz's tornado photo will be etched below the clock and above the story. Image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

An artist’s rendering of the tornado monument. The words on the bench will read “Tracy Tornado Monument” and an engraving of Eric Lantz’s tornado photo will be etched below the clock and above the story. Image courtesy of Scott Thoma.

The new three-sided marker will feature the story of the tornado and a well-known photo by Eric Lantz etched on the front, according to Thoma. Names and ages of the tornado victims will be listed on another side. And on the back side, visitors will find a stone bench.

On all three sides, a clock will be etched into the stone, stopped at 7:03 p.m., the time the tornado reached the Tracy city limits.

The memorial is expected to be done this summer and unveiled during Boxcar Days, an annual community celebration, on September 2.

In the meantime, there’s still memorial money to be raised and Thoma is doing his part, donating $3 to the monument fund for every book sold. He is selling Out of the Blue from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. Thursday at the Tornado Tree Memorial along Highway 14. Root beer floats will also be available with all proceeds directed to the memorial.

Thoma will talk about the tornado and his book at 4 p.m. at the Tracy Library. I read and reviewed Out of the Blue a year ago and you can read that review by clicking here.

As is customary with most small town events, there’s a meal involved in the Tracy tornado anniversary. Folks will gather at the fire hall from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. for a “freewill donation potluck supper,” Thoma says. The Tracy Community Band plays at 7 p.m. across the street in Central Park. And at 8 p.m., somewhere in town, the Tracy Library will show the movie Twister.

If you’re interested in buying a copy of Out of the Blue and/or donating to the Tracy Tornado Memorial fund, email Thoma at scott@thomabooks.com or call (320) 894-6007.

You can also order his book online by clicking here.

If you lived through the Tracy tornado or have any stories to share about the storm, please submit a comment. I’d like to hear from you. Other comments are also welcome.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Stories from the Tracy, Minnesota, tornado remembered and published 44 years later June 13, 2012

Eric J. Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo.

FORTY-FOUR YEARS AGO TODAY Minnesota’s first F5 tornado, the most powerful with wind speeds in excess of 300 mph, plowed through the southwestern Minnesota farming community of Tracy killing nine.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast, my farmer father paused from milking cows on that sultry June 13 evening in 1968 to watch the tornado churn across the flat prairie landscape. Not wanting to unduly alarm his family, he did not warn us of the approaching storm. Only afterward, when the menacing clouds dissipated before reaching our farm, did he tell us what he’d observed through the open barn door.

Days later our family of eight piled into the family car and drove to Tracy to see the devastation.

This photo, taken by Eric J. Lantz, a printer’s devil/photographer for the Walnut Grove Tribune, was republished in  the Tracy Headlight Herald courtesy of the Tribune. It shows a damaged boat and overturned car sitting atop the rubble after the Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968.

I was an impressionable 11 ½ years old at the time. Specific memories of that destruction—except for twisted, shredded trees and tossed boxcars—have long vanished. But the overall, chaotic scene and the deaths of those nine Tracy residents are forever seared into my memory. The deadly Tracy tornado is the sole reason I dream about and fear tornadoes.

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

So I knew when I picked up Tracy native Scott Thoma’s recently-published book, Out of the Blue—The true story of two sisters and their miraculous survival of one of the most powerful tornadoes in Minnesota history—that the nightmare would come.

And it did, on the night I finished the chapter about sisters Linda (Haugen) Vaske, 20, and Pam Haugen, 8, who never made it to the basement of Linda’s home, I dreamed that I could not reach the basement during a tornado.

I’ve blocked out the rest of that nightmare. And for more than four decades, Linda, who was flung about by the fierce winds of that 1968 tornado as was Pam, also blocked out much of that terrifying event. That is until she and Pam sat down with Thoma, a long-time writer and newspaper reporter, to talk about that fateful evening when they nearly lost their lives.

For 44 years, Linda blamed herself for the death of the tornado’s youngest victim, 2 ½-year-old Nancy Vlahos, whom Linda’s then-husband and she were in the process of adopting. The preschooler was ripped from Linda’s arms and later found dead in the street.

While the story of the Haugen sisters and little Nancy centers the book, Thoma’s account of the Tracy tornado encompasses the stories of others, including his own. He lived less than a block from the twister’s destructive path and recalls his father searching for an elderly neighbor and unintentionally stepping upon the man’s lifeless body wrapped in a tattered drape. It was the first time he saw his father cry.

That intimate familiarity with the scenes that unfolded in the aftermath of the tornado and the understanding of how small towns pull together assure readers that Thoma is writing this for reasons which are deeply personal. He is honoring those who died, those who survived and those who helped his community of then 2,500 residents in its hours of greatest need.

You will read about Delpha Koch, who from her farm home five miles southwest of Tracy, phoned a dispatcher at 6:55 p.m. to warn of the approaching tornado, saving countless lives. Ditto for the police officer and train crew and others who alerted residents to the storm.

Delpha, a critical care nurse at the Tracy Hospital, her husband and two sons immediately headed into Tracy, arriving as screaming and stunned residents covered in dirt and silt emerged from the rubble. Almost immediately rescuers began taking the dead and injured to the hospital in a furniture delivery truck and other vehicles.

Thoma, via conversations with survivors and through extensive research, writes with absolute attention to detail, taking the reader inside that 42-bed hospital where 171 patients were seen for tornado-related injuries in the outpatient department. Twenty-three were hospitalized, including the Haugen sisters—Linda was seriously injured, Pam was not.

In what I consider one of the most memorable lines from the book, Thoma quotes Kathy Haugen, upon seeing Linda: “That’s not my sister.” Due to the extent of her injuries, Linda was unrecognizable to even her closest loved ones.

Thoma’s book is as much a tragic story of lives lost and homes and businesses damaged or destroyed as it is about a community pulling together. From Tracy Fire Chief/Fire Marshall/Civil Defense Director Bernie Holm who worked tirelessly for his community to the 80-year-old retired doctor who volunteered at the hospital to the veterinarians who sutured wounds to the farmers who brought tanks of water to the hospital and more, this is a story of how we as humans assist one another in need.

But it is also a story which emphasizes the ferocity of an F5 tornado, one of only two which have ever occurred in Minnesota, the other in nearby Chandler on June 16, 1992. One person was killed in Chandler and 35 injured.

I remember, from 1968 accounts of the Tracy tornado, the reports of tossed boxcars; a 25-ton boxcar was blown two blocks. Thoma spews out the numbers—26 toppled train cars, 111 destroyed homes, 76 houses with major damages, five businesses destroyed and 15 businesses damaged.

Yet, what impacts me most upon reading his book are the nuances of this tornado, like the account of Tracy resident Jerry Engesser discovering a book upon the rubble in his yard. He turns it over to read the title, Gone with the Wind.

And then, the bit that makes goosebumps rise on my arms comes in a partial letter found by a farmer 45 miles away near Redwood Falls. It reads:

Cliffy,
It’s raining and hailing here tonight and the wind is blowing hard…

Linda (Haugen) Vaske had just begun writing that letter to her military husband, Clifford, when the tornado swept into Tracy around 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 13, 1968, claiming nine lives and forever changing this southwestern Minnesota prairie community.

Eric J. Lantz, photographer for the Walnut Grove Tribune, also took this photo which was shared and published in the Tracy Headlight Herald. He captured this scene at the demolished Tracy Elementary School.

FYI: Click here to link to Willmar, Minnesota, author Scott Thoma’s Out of the Blue website. His book was published in May by Polaris Publications, an imprint of North Star Press of St. Cloud, Inc.

To read an earlier post I wrote about the Tracy tornado, click here. It features information from Al Koch, who is married to one of my best friends from Wabasso High School, Janette Koch. Al witnessed the Tracy tornado and destruction and his mother, Delpha, phoned the Tracy dispatcher about the approaching tornado.

My experience with tornadoes is personal. About 30 years ago, when I was already an adult and living away from home, a twister struck the farm where I grew up. Click here to read that post.

Click here to read a post about a tornado which struck my father’s childhood farm about a mile away in 1953 or 1954.

Last July 1 a series of downbursts with windspeeds of 90 – 100 mph swept through my hometown of Vesta. Read about the damage there by clicking here.

And finally, click here to read a post about a terrifying storm my husband, son, mother and I rode out in a car along a rural road north of Walnut Grove (near Tracy) two summers ago. I’ve probably never been more terrified than during those 45 minutes on that stormy, black night.

Yes, I fear and respect tornadoes. You should, too.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Copyrighted photos are courtesy of Scott Thoma and are published here with his permission. Photographer Eric J. Lantz retains the copyright to the above photos.

 DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of Out of the Blue. However, that did not influence my decision to write this post nor its content.

 

Remembering the Tracy, Minnesota tornado of June 13, 1968 June 13, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 6:33 AM
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“YOU COULD SEE THINGS FLYING in the air…big chunks of wood from houses…everything was circling.”

Forty-two years ago today, then18-year-old Al Koch watched as a tornado, which would soon turn deadly, aimed for his family’s Custer Township farm one mile east of Garvin in southwestern Minnesota.

“It looked like it was coming toward us, then it took a jog,” he remembers. “It was real wide and real black.”

The twister had changed direction, heading at an angle straight toward Tracy four miles to the northeast. When the Koch family—Melvin and Delpha and sons, Bruce and Al—realized that, they sounded the alarm. Delpha phoned the Tracy Police Department dispatcher at about 6:50 p.m., warning of the approaching tornado.

Civil defense sirens sounded five minutes later. And at 7:04 p.m., the twister struck the southwestern edge of this farming community.

The F5 tornado, the most powerful with winds of 261 – 318 mph, ravaged the small town, leaving nine people dead and 150 injured.

If not for that warning from the Kochs, more people likely would have died. The family was honored for their efforts, and drew much media attention.

Today, at age 60, Al recalls how his family nearly immediately drove to the Tracy hospital, where Delpha worked as a nurse. They knew she would be needed. According to news reports, even local veterinarians were called upon to treat the injured.

The Kochs dropped Delpha off and then left Tracy right away. Al remembers, especially, the people he saw walking among the destruction. “They were kind of black, covered with dirt.”

Details like that and his fear that the tornado would hit his family’s farm, even after more than four decades, stick with this Garvin farmer who had just graduated from Tracy High School in 1968. Years later, he would marry Janette, one of my best friends from Wabasso High School.

Earlier this spring while researching the Tracy tornado, I learned of Delpha Koch’s early warning to the community. I e-mailed Janette and asked if Delpha was related to her husband. Of course, she was and that’s how I ended up with a thick packet of newspaper clippings about the deadly twister. These were stories I had never heard.

I was only 11 ½ when the storm struck. On that deadly evening, my dad watched the tornado through an open barn door on our farm near Vesta. He thought the twister was much closer than Tracy 25 miles to the southwest. My family eventually drove to Tracy to see first-hand the destruction. What I witnessed left me with a life-long respect for—even fear of—the powerful strength of a tornado.

Now, 42 years later, as I paged through these first-person accounts, I sensed the horror of those who experienced the June 13, 1968, tornado.

I read, for the first time, the names of those who died: Nancy Vlahos, 2; Walter Swanson, 47; Ella Haney, 84; Mildred Harden, 75; Ellen Morgan, 75; Otelia Werner, 75; Fred Pilatus, 71; Paul Swanson, 60; and Barbara Holbrook, 50.

I read of bodies laid out for identification in the hospital laundry room. I read of the father who struggled to hold onto his 12-year-old daughter as tornadic winds tried to suck her from his grasp. I read of the 50-year-old woman who came out of her basement too early and died. I read about one victim, who had a big, long piece of wood driven through his legs. I read about the woman found lying dead near her couch, presumably unaware of the tornado because she wore a hearing aid and did not hear the storm coming.

I read. I cried.

Today, please take a moment to honor the memories of those who lost their lives in the Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

7:04 PM, June 13, 1968, Tracy, Minnesota June 13, 2018

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:04 PM
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ELLEN HANEY. Mildred Harnden, Barbara Holbrook. Ellen Morgan. Fred Pilatus. Paul Swanson. Walter Swanson. Nancy Viahos. Otelia Werner.

They ranged in age from two to 84. The same age as my granddaughter and just a few years younger than my mom.

On this evening 50 years ago, the nine died in an F-5 tornado that ravaged the rural farming community of Tracy in my native southwestern Minnesota.

At 7:04 p.m. today, church bells will ring in Tracy, marking the precise time the twister, with wind speeds surpassing 300 mph, roared into town killing those nine residents, injuring 125 and desecrating the landscape.

 

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.

 

All these decades later, the visual memories of that devastation still flash before my eyes in twisted, broken trees and piles of jumbled lumber, once homes. I was an impressionable almost 12-year-old when my dad drove our family 25 miles southwest from our farm to Tracy just days after the storm. You don’t forget a scene like that—such utter and chaotic destruction that a place no longer resembles a town. For that reason I’ve always feared and respected tornadoes.

I’ve written many times about the Tracy tornado. I’d encourage you to read those posts by clicking here.

 

Some of the injured at the Tracy Hospital. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

 

Tracy residents, current and former, remain committed to honoring the memories of those who died in the June 13, 1968, tornado. Last weekend the town held events to commemorate the 50th anniversary. That included tolling of the Lutheran church bell and the release of nine black balloons. A noted Twin Cities meteorologist and storm chaser came to town as did Scott Thoma, hometown boy who authored a book, Out of the Blue, about the tornado. Locals shared tornado stories in words and in photos posted on a memory wall. A Tornado Tree Memorial has long been in place. Selected 2018-2019 Tracy area high school graduates will receive scholarships given in the names of those who died. Monies from the sale of “Never Forget” t-shirts are funding those financial gifts.

Never Forget. Those two words have themed this 50th anniversary remembrance.

 

Surveying the destruction at Tracy Elementary School, which was destroyed. Photo by The Tracy Headlight Herald and courtesy of Scott Thoma.

 

Down in Nashville, Tracy native and award-winning songwriter Dennis Morgan, penned, performed and recorded a song, “The Ballad of the Tracy Tornado, 50 Years Later.” Morgan was just 15 and cleaning a calf pen when he and his family spotted the twister from their farm west of town. They raced to get their father from a field where he was cultivating corn before sheltering in a neighbor’s basement. Morgan sent 300 copies of his ballad CD to his hometown with all sale proceeds designated for the Tracy Fire Department and Ambulance Service.

 

Eric Lantz, 16, of Walnut Grove, shot this award-winning photo of the Tracy tornado as it was leaving town. He often took photos for the Walnut Grove Tribune, owned by his uncle, Everett Lantz. This image by Eric was awarded third place in the 1968 National Newspaper Association contest for best news photo. This copyrighted photo is courtesy of Scott Thoma with the original copyright retained by Eric Lantz.

 

While researching this post, I also noted an iconic, award-winning tornado photo on the City of Tracy website. The image was taken by then 16-year-old Eric Lantz for the Walnut Grove Tribune. Today that photo takes me back to this small town on the prairie as, at 7:04 pm 50 years later, I schedule this post to publish. I shall never forget…

 

© Text copyright of Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Images copyrighted as noted.

 

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

 

What’s your reaction to the blare of tornado warning sirens? May 25, 2011

HOW DO YOU RESPOND to sirens warning of an approaching storm?

I’d like to know, so consider this an unscientific poll spinning off the worst outbreak of deadly tornadoes in the U.S. since 1953. Already the death toll for 2011 has surpassed 450. And we’re not even into June, the peak of tornado season, at least here in Minnesota.

Why have so many died? I haven’t researched the reasons, but some residents of Joplin, Missouri, for example, claim they didn’t hear warning sirens above the roar of the storm.

During the Sunday afternoon tornado that cut a swath through north Minneapolis, sirens failed to work in places like Hugo to the northeast in Washington County. That didn’t sit well with residents who experienced a devastating tornado in 2008.

Even if sirens blare, warning of an approaching tornado or severe thunderstorm, do residents seek shelter?

How do you react when storm warning sirens sound?

A)    Immediately seek shelter in the basement.

B)     Step outside to look at the sky.

C)    Turn on the television or radio or go online for weather updates.

D)    Ignore the sirens.

E)     None of the above. Explain.

Please cast your vote and share your comments.

Not to influence your vote or anything, but I generally choose A. I possess a healthy, deep respect for storms, specifically tornadoes. That stems from growing up on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, near Tracy, a small town devastated by a June 13, 1968, tornado that killed nine and injured 150. The destruction of that F5  (261 – 318 mph winds) tornado, which I saw firsthand, left a lasting impression upon me.

Fortunately, I don’t panic like I once did when storm sirens sound. After I became a mother and realized that my panic was impacting my children, frightening them more than they needed to be frightened, I reigned in my fears. They didn’t need to know that I was afraid.

Other family members may disagree with that current assessment of my reaction to foreboding storms. My 17-year-old son, for example, surmised that I have an overactive imagination when I called him to the window Sunday afternoon to view ominous clouds that I thought might be swirling into a tornado. He actually laughed at me.

However, when storm watches, and especially warnings, are issued, I listen.  And when sirens sound, I prepare to take shelter.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Worrying about the Wisconsin tornadoes April 10, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:49 PM
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FOR THE PAST 1 1/2 HOURS, after receiving a text from my second daughter that she is hunkered down in the basement of her Appleton, Wisconsin, apartment, I have been worrying.

Her area of Wisconsin has been under a tornado warning.

So, for awhile, we texted back and forth, until finally, I thought it easier to call.

She didn’t seem scared, only worried about predicted hail and about her car sitting out in the parking lot.

Me? My daughter’s safety is top on my list. She is on call tonight for her job as a Spanish medical interpreter and I wanted to make sure she stayed put.

I made the mistake of logging onto the severe weather chatline on the area’s television station, FOX 11 WLUK-TV. Reports of tornadoes and strong winds and damaged buildings are streaming in.

Minute after minute, I read aloud, to my girl, the live chat comments. Finally, she said, “Mom, I think you’re scaring yourself.”

She would be right. I’m afraid of tornadoes, which could have something to do with the Tracy tornado of June 13, 1968, which killed nine. I lived, back then, only 25 miles from that southwestern Minnesota town.

But on this stormy night in Wisconsin, I’m afraid of a tornado six hours away in a state where I know few towns by name, let alone the counties where tornado warnings have been issued.

I recognize Menasha and Oskosh and Appleton and Little Chute.

And as I read the live chat comments, I realize that half of what I’m reading may be untrue.

So I read this comment to my daughter: “If people could type only what they know to be true that would be helpful!”

For the mom back in Minnesota, that would be very helpful.

And then my daughter tells me she has to go, that work is calling. And I tell her, emphasizing each word, “Don’t go anywhere.”

I’m hoping she will listen.

I tell her dad to call her.

But before he can, my cell phone rings. My daughter was asked to interpret over the phone. But because she was hunkered in the basement, without everything she needed for work, the scheduler told her to stay put.

For that I am thankful.

The last time I checked the National Weather Service, the storm was moving away from Appleton, toward the Green Bay area.

I’ve asked my daughter to let me know if there’s any storm damage in her area of Wisconsin.

But for now, I think I’ll log off that live severe weather chat line and call it a night. Oh, and I’ll say a prayer for our Wisconsin neighbors, adding a prayer also that my daughter doesn’t get called out on this stormy night.

Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Terrifying tornado tales from Minnesota June 24, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:22 AM
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ONE WEEK AGO TODAY, numerous tornadoes ravaged Minnesota, killing three, destroying hundreds of homes and injuring many.

This morning, thankfully, weather conditions are calm with low humidity and no indications that more storms could develop.

Even so, we Minnesotans remain unsettled, still reeling from the destruction wreaked upon this land, and upon our psyches, only seven days ago.

Memories of such devastation linger for years, if not decades. Just last night, while working on a trivia contest for an upcoming reunion, I am paging through a family history book when I come upon a story written by my Uncle Merlin, the family historian.

He writes of an F5 tornado (the most powerful) which decimated the small southwestern Minnesota farming community of Tracy on June 13, 1968, killing nine. At the time, Merlin, his wife and their two young children lived about 20 miles away just outside of Lamberton three towns directly east of Tracy along U.S. Highway 14.

My uncle had just returned home from work when the weather turned ominous. “We were watching for tornadoes as the conditions were right,” he writes. “Then to the southwest we saw it—a huge tornado. As we watched, we saw large amounts of debris lifted into the sky—we thought it hit Revere and about that time Iylene (his wife) took one-year-old Janelle and I took Ronda down into the basement. About an hour later we found out that this tornado hit Tracy causing a large amount of destruction and costing several lives.”

Reading my uncle’s story, I feel his anxiety as he rushes his young family to safety, fearing the twister is within miles of his home.

Then I flip the page of the history booklet and read of Merlin’s first tornado encounter, on today’s date—June 24—in1953 or 1954. Although only about 10 years old when a twister struck his childhood farm south of Vesta, he clearly remembers the details and that day, his sister Elvira’s wedding anniversary.

“The sky turned all kinds of colors and we kids were really scared,” my uncle remembers. “My dad and brothers were out doing the chores and milking the cows. Harold (his brother) got caught in the hog barn as it hit and my dad and one of my brothers had to hold the double doors of the barn closed on one end and two of my other brothers did the same on the other end.”

His words draw me in, placing me there in the barn with my grandfather and uncles as they hunker down, struggling against the fierce winds to hold the barn doors in place.

“There was one loud crash and then stillness,” Merlin continues. “My sister Jeanette looked out the north window of the house and shouted, ‘Mom, the whole grove is gone.’ That was really close.”

The tornado spared the house and farm buildings, but destroyed the stand of trees sheltering the farm site on the flat, open prairie of southwestern Minnesota.

Almost three decades later a twister struck nearby, on the farm where I grew up, taking down a silo, tossing wagons about in the field, ripping a railing from the house… Even though I was grown then and no longer living at home, the psychological impact of that storm still remains.

I fear tornadoes, a fear imprinted upon me after viewing the devastation wreaked upon Tracy in 1968 and then reinforced all those years later on my home farm. I sometimes dream about tornadoes.

Yet, I know my dreams, my feelings, are nothing compared to those Minnesotans who experienced the destructive tornadoes of a week ago. For them, nightmares are reality.

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IF YOU HAVE A TORNADO story you would like to share, please submit a comment to this post.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Tornado terror in Minnesota on June 17, 2010 June 18, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:55 AM
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Ominous clouds roil above Faribault shortly after 9 p.m. Thursday. I shot this through my dining room window.

“WERE THOSE THE SIRENS?” I ask, inching down the car window, uncertain whether I’ve heard the sirens that warn of an approaching storm.

“I think it was a truck,” my husband says as he continues driving west along Minnesota Highway 60 in Faribault toward the Eagles Club.

Then I hear the sound again, and this time we recognize the shrill whistle warning us to take cover.

“I want to go home. Now,” I command.

I can tell simply by my husband’s lack of response that he thinks I’m crazy. The skies don’t appear all that threatening.

“They’re not going to take our blood anyway,” I state, arguing my case. “I’m sure they have protocol in situations like this.”

He won’t concur that I am right, seeming to hesitate at the intersection that will take us to the Eagles and the Red Cross Bloodmobile. But on this June evening, the Red Cross will get none of our blood. We are heading back home, across town, to safety.

My husband switches on the car radio. The announcer is advising people to take shelter as near as Waterville about 15 miles away. The area lies in the path of a tornado.

Back home I nearly leap from the car and rush inside the house where we left our 16-year-old son finishing his homework for a night-time astronomy class. Before leaving, I instructed him to seek shelter if he heard the sirens. Clearly, he has listened to me this time. The door to the basement is flung open, the lights blazing.

I yell for my boy, but get no response. Soon he pounds down the stairs from the second story. “I checked on the internet and it’s only a thunderstorm warning,” he says.

“Uh, no,” I say, explaining that we are under a tornado warning.

Given that, none of us are fleeing to the basement even though I fear tornadoes. Witnessing the destruction of the June 13, 1968, Tracy tornado (see my June 13 blog post) that claimed nine lives and, decades later, seeing the damage a twister caused to the southwestern Minnesota farm where I grew up instilled in me a life-long healthy respect for these powerful storms.

And yesterday, in Minnesota, that respect likely grew among residents. Two people in the Wadena area and one near Albert Lea were killed when tornadoes struck. The state may have broken its record for the biggest tornado outbreak in a single day. That record stood at 27 on June 16, 1992, when an F5 tornado devastated Chandler and killed one person.

On Thursday, multiple twisters ravage many regions of Minnesota. At one time, a weatherman reports that a tornado seems to be moving straight north along Interstate 35 toward Owatonna, just to the south of Faribault.

I worry about my sister and her husband who are traveling on I-35 to Des Moines sometime after she gets off work Thursday afternoon. That route would take them directly through the storm-struck area. The interstate has been closed due to the storm, one reporter says.

Here in Faribault, round 9 p.m. on Thursday, the skies turn an eerie green to the west. To the east, ominous steel-gray clouds weigh heavy upon the earth. My anxiety level rises as I recall something about green skies and tornadoes, true or not. But no new warning sirens blare.

When I climb into bed at 11:15 p.m., many Minnesota counties, including my home county of Rice, remain under a tornado watch until 1 a.m.

This morning I awake to cloudy skies, edged out now by bright sunshine. I expect for many in our state, daylight brings a new appreciation for the power of tornadoes and a profound thankfulness for surviving their rage.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling