Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Couple grateful to survive Belview tornado July 8, 2011

TOM AND DeLORES JOHNSON never reached their storm shelter late Friday afternoon, July 1, when an EF-1 tornado blew into Belview. They didn’t have time.

But for the Johnsons, that turned out to be a good thing.

“The storm shelter was ripped up by the big tree that stood next to it…we would have been injured or possibly killed if we would have been in it,” DeLores surmises. Instead, they managed to seek protection in the basement of their 1898 home.

The storm cellar where the Johnsons would have sought protection had they had time to reach it.

“We are grateful to be alive,” DeLores says, a statement likely echoed by other rural and small-town residents in southwestern Minnesota where a wide-spread July 1 storm spawned four EF-1 tornadoes and a more powerful EF-2 twister. Belview was among the communities hardest hit when the tornado, with winds of 95 – 105 mph, ravaged this town of 375.

The Johnsons are in the process of cleaning up, dealing with insurance adjusters and gathering estimates so they can begin repairs on the 113-year-old house they’ve lived in since 1988. The list of damages to their home is extensive:

  • chimney blown down
  • rafters broken in the attic
  • shingles missing
  • paint blown off house
  • broken window
  • water damage to walls, ceilings, maple floors and carpet
  • roofs on two porches damaged and in need of replacement

The Johnsons' 1898 house was damaged inside and out by last Friday's tornado. DeLores offered to take photos of the interior for me, but I figured she had enough to do without adding this to her list.

A view of the house roof where the chimney was ripped off by the tornado.

DeLores shares some interesting details about the storm. “The wind blew water through the air conditioner in the bedroom upstairs and blew the water so it ran across the hall into another bedroom. It soaked up the carpet in the hallway and that in turn ran down into our living room.

“Upstairs in my office, water also blew through the air conditioner there. The shade has ground-up leaves stuck into it as does the shade in the bedroom.”

And that’s just the house.

The garage received structural damage when a tree toppled onto it and onto Tom’s  SUV. His vehicle was totaled.

A tree fell onto the garage and Tom's SUV, which was totaled.

The Johnsons lost nine trees, some of which fell onto a 100-year-old fence that DeLores says they’ve lovingly protected for years.

One of several trees that landed on the 100-year-old fence.

One of numerous downed trees.

Despite the severe damage to home and property, DeLores is grateful that they survived the storm.

She is also appreciative of all the help from family members and others. “Men from Belgrade, Long Prairie and Sauk Centre came and sawed up trees for us and helped to clean up. They were volunteers who we had never seen.”

NEARBY ON A WOOD LAKE area farm, my cousin, Marilyn Schmidt, expressed similar sentiments in an email I received at noon Thursday. “Lucky no loss of life. Fortunately, we were not home.”

Marilyn and her husband, Dan, had just arrived at a west-central Minnesota lake for the July Fourth weekend when an EF-1 tornado hit their Redwood County farm one week ago today.

Since then, with the help of family and residents from Cottonwood, the Schmidts are cleaning up. Click here to read a previous post about the storm damage at their place.

Their son, Matt, was at the farm with a crew on Thursday when Marilyn emailed.

She tells me that all of their neighbors to the south and east and some north and some west had major damage to their properties. The Schmidts’ insurance adjuster already had gotten 1,500 claims by Tuesday night.

Marilyn closed her brief email with this sentence: “Gotta go—men to feed!!!”

IN VESTA, WHERE A SERIES OF DOWNBURSTS with wind speeds of 90 – 100 mph caused significant damage and downed trees, members of St. John’s Lutheran Church are planning to repair their church. The south half of the church roof was lifted off and slammed against the bell tower, according to my uncle, Milan Stage, a church member. The tower was cracked at the base and will need to be taken down, he says.

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vesta with the roof half ripped off by strong winds during the Friday afternoon storm. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

Everything has been removed from the sanctuary into the attached social hall. The congregation is awaiting reports from an insurance adjuster and two contractors who have been on-site.

Milan says the west end and sides of St. John’s appear to be alright, but that “It will be a slow process getting the church back in use.” The church council met Wednesday evening and decided, if funds are available, to remodel the church along with repairing it. In the meantime, congregational members will worship at their sister church, Peace, in nearby Echo.

Across town at Uncle Milan and Aunt Jeanette’s home, the high winds wrecked eave troughs and a deck railing. A branch went through the railing, taking half of the railing and the grill with it, Milan says. Tops were snapped from some ash trees in the Stages’ back yard. Branches from their big cottonwood tree were strewn across the lawn.

JUST A BLOCK TO THE SOUTH my 79-year-old mom, Arlene Kletscher, never made it to the basement during the storm. She was sitting in her living room sorting through papers and wanted to complete the task. In her closed-up, air conditioned house, she never heard the warning sirens. By the time she realized the severity of the situation, it was already too late to seek safety.

This marks the second time my mom has not gotten to safety during a severe storm. Thirty some years ago a tornado hit our home farm, where she was living at the time. Then a silo was downed, wagons strewn across the field, among other destruction.

I am thankful, again, that she is OK.

My mom’s Vesta home was apparently unscathed. However, she lost one tree and her yard was littered with branches and other debris.

READERS, THANK YOU for following my series of storm stories which began last Saturday. Yesterday Minnesota Prairie Roots’ views reached an all-time daily high of 1,443. That indicates to me a continued strong interest in the storms of southwestern Minnesota.

I know several of you have posted links to my blogs on Facebook. Thank you for doing that and also thanks to those who have shared their stories and photos. If you’re reading this and have a storm-related story to share, please submit a comment.

If you missed my earlier storm posts, check my archives. Many of those stories include links to more storm information and images.

PHOTOS COURTESY of DeLores and Tom Johnson

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


National Weather Service confirms July 1 tornadoes in southwestern Minnesota July 7, 2011

THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE confirms what many Minnesotans had already figured out. Several tornadoes touched down during a massive storm system that began near the South Dakota/Minnesota border late Friday afternoon, July 1, and swept as far east as northwestern Wisconsin.

In my home area of Redwood County, two tornadoes were confirmed—both in the northwestern section of the county.

According to the NWS Chanhassen office, an EF-1 tornado with maximum winds of 95 – 105 mph began approximately six miles west of Vesta and continued for some 21 miles to the northeast. The maximum half-mile wide twister moved across Belview, which saw the most widespread tree damage in the surveyed area. The tornado then crossed the Minnesota River and ended two miles into eastern Renville County. Click here to read my previous post on the storm damage in Belview.


Trees blocked the street north of the Belview City Park following the tornado that passed through this Redwood County community of 375. Photo courtesy of Merlin and Iylene Kletscher.

The second EF-1 Redwood County tornado just nipped the northwestern corner of the county traveling a 2 ½-mile path. The tornado hit the farm of my cousin, Marilyn Schmidt, and her husband, Dan. To see the damage there, click on this post published yesterday on Minnesota Prairie Roots.


This tractor rigged with chains holds up a wall of a shop on Dan and Marilyn Schmidt's Wood Lake area farm. The building was severely damaged by Friday's twister. I'm showing this photo specifically for the reader who yesterday questioned how a tractor could hold up a wall. Photo courtesy of Heather Rokeh.

Three other tornadoes were confirmed in southwestern Minnesota—the most-damaging an EF-2 in Tyler with winds estimated at 115 mph. Check out the storm assessment of this 3-mile long tornado in Lincoln County near the South Dakota border by clicking here onto the NWS Sioux Falls website.

You’ll also find information there on an EF-1 twister that struck the Ruthton area in Pipestone County with wind speeds of 100 – 110 mph.

Strong winds, not a tornado, apparently caused the damage in my hometown of Vesta. The Chanhassen office of the NWS lists the storm there as “a series of downbursts” with wind speeds of 90 – 100 mph. Destruction in Vesta included dozens of downed trees, a roof partially-lifted from St. John’s Lutheran Church (my home church), smashed grain bins, damage to the elevator and more. To learn more about the damage in Vesta, read my previous blog post by clicking here or click here to read a story published in The Redwood Gazette.

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Vesta with the roof half ripped off by strong winds during the Friday afternoon storm. Photo courtesy of Brian Kletscher.

The NWS also determined that an EF-1 tornado with wind speeds of 100 – 110 mph cut a 300-yard-wide, 2 1/2 –mile swath northeast of Danube, lifting much of the roof from at least one home.

Check out the two NWS websites for maps, photos and more detailed information on the storms and the resulting damage.

Also visit the Belview Blue Jays Facebook page, where you’ll find photos of storm damage and other information from Belview.

IF YOU HAVE INFORMATION and photos you would like to share of storm damage, please submit a comment and I will follow-up with an email to you.

Based on my blog readership yesterday and Tuesday, interest in the southwestern Minnesota storms remains high. Yesterday Minnesota Prairie Roots blog views totaled 1,129, my highest daily total since launching this blog. On an average day, I get around 400 views.


Ominous skies near Nerstrand July 2, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:40 AM
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HAD I NOT KNOWN about the storm damage earlier that evening in southwestern Minnesota, I may not have worried so much.

Had my sister not called from Waseca and advised my husband and me to “get home,” I may not have worried so much.

Had the clouds not turned dark and foreboding, looming low enough to nearly brush the earth, I may not have worried so much.

Had my friend Fritz kept quiet and not shared her tales of tornado terror, I may not have worried so much.

But Friday evening when a strong storm hit my hometown of Vesta, when my sister warned of the approaching storm, when the sky threatened and when Fritz told her stories, I worried. I cannot help myself. Storms scare me.

And here are the images, taken at a farm near Nerstrand where I was attending a party, to prove why I was concerned.

Despite my fear, I must admit that the skies held a certain ominous beauty.

Spectacular lightning—our own fireworks show—crisscrossed the sky for hours. I attempted a few lightning shots, but could never get the timing right. And when you’re scared, holding the camera still enough for a slow shutter speed doesn’t work. Rain also kept me from pulling out my Canon.

The evening ended without any severe storms in our locale, despite skies that I swore would drop a tornado at any minute.

But in my hometown, the results were different. If you haven’t read my earlier post today about the storm in Vesta, click here. My brother was stopped twice trying to get into town to check on our mom, who is OK.

After the ominous clouds and the rain, this rainbow appeared.

© Copyright 2011 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


Riding out severe weather in this Minnesota summer of storms July 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 7:26 AM
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WITH SEVERE WEATHER once again in the forecast for Minnesota today, I am nervous, and understandably so in this summer of storms.

Between 11 p.m. and midnight Friday, my family was stranded in our car along Redwood County Road 5 north of Walnut Grove during a 45-minute torrential downpour that packed 70 mph winds.

I’ve never been more terrified in my life.

As the wind buffeted and rocked our car in the pitch black darkness of the country, as rain poured, as lightning flashed, I prayed, head pressed for awhile against the back of the driver’s seat where I was seated behind my husband. My 78-year-old mom sat in the front passenger seat and my 16-year-old son was next to me in the back.

At one point I grabbed my son’s hand and squeezed so tightly that he asked me to let go. Later he would slide his hand across the seat and grasp mine in his.

The evening started out pleasantly enough with the drive from Vesta, where I grew up and where my mom still lives, to Walnut Grove some 20 miles away. We were going to the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant, Fragments of a Dream, presented in an outdoor amphitheater just west of this small town.

Throughout the performance, which began at 9 p.m., I kept a watchful eye on the sky, where clouds were building to the west. My cousin Randy, a trained weather spotter and seated behind me, made the mistake of informing us that the area was under a tornado watch until 4 a.m. That information instantly raised my anxiety radar.

Yet, the show continued as lightning flashed all around us, as rain fell hard enough (for a short while) for audience members to pull out umbrellas and rain gear. I kept thinking they would call the show soon and send us safely on our way. That never happened, although in retrospect it should have. My brother Brian would later tell me he watched the storm cell move into the area on television weather radar.

Around 11 p.m., we exited the pageant grounds and just as we entered Walnut Grove minutes later, the sheets of rain began to fall. My husband drove across State Highway 14 where a police car sat, lights flashing, as is typical for post production. On the other side of the highway, still in town, Randy pulled over, remarking that maybe he shouldn’t park under a tree.

I thought we would stay there until the storm passed. But then, before I could suggest we do so, Randy took off and our nightmare began. On an unfamiliar road marked only by center tabs on the recently sealcoated gravel surface, he blindly (in my opinion) attempted to direct the car north toward Vesta.

Soon enough, after I reminded him that he was responsible for three other lives, not just his own, he pulled partially off the road onto the shoulder. Ahead of us, we could see other vehicles parked too, their emergency lights flashing.

And then, only then, did I realize the gravity of our situation. We were in the midst of a severe storm packing fierce winds with nowhere to go. Winds estimated at 70 mph slammed against the car, flattened the roadside grasses and I’m pretty sure ravaged trees, although I couldn’t see them. As our vehicle rocked, I feared it would flip. I feared also that a tornado would drop from the skies. When the lightning flashed, I could see dark, ominous swirling clouds. The wind changed direction from west to northeast.

Several times I wished out loud that we could seek out the safety of a farmhouse. But how could we even see to find a farm driveway? My mom, in her ignorance or fear, repeatedly told me the car was the safest place we could be. I repeatedly told her that, no, a basement would be the safest place we could be.

To their credit, the rest of my immediate family members did not panic, although they would later admit that they, too, were scared. My aunt Iylene and cousin Janelle, who were caught on the same road during the storm, later shared that they were as terrified as me and especially concerned because six of them were inside a higher profile, wind-catching pick-up that was topped with a canoe.

When the rain would relent enough for us to see somewhat, my husband would drive a short distance. Probably four our five times he drove then pulled over. Drove then pulled over. We kept thinking this could not last forever. But it did.

With a non-functioning radio and the cell phone inside my purse in the car trunk (which didn’t matter since I typically cannot get reception in this area of Minnesota), we were uninformed, at the mercy of the elements and of our imaginations (or at least mine).

Had I been thinking rationally, I would have grabbed my camera and photographed the spectacular lightning show that lit up the entire prairie sky and sent an occasional bolt zig zagging to the ground. But I was not thinking clearly. Instead, I was focused on that wind, that fierce, fierce wind that just kept rocking our car in that nightmare of a night in the middle of the prairie.

When we finally arrived at my mom’s house an hour later, I could have kissed the ground of my hometown. I have never in my life been happier to see Vesta.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling