Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Rice County still needs volunteers to help with storm clean-up October 17, 2018

Several days ago I photographed this home destroyed September 20 by an EF-2 tornado in Morristown. This small town was the hardest hit in a massive storm system that spawned 16 tornadoes and straight line winds in southern Minnesota. An EF-2 has wind speeds of 120 – 130 mph.


FOUR WEEKS AFTER MULTIPLE TORNADOES and severe storms ravaged Rice County, folks in my area still need assistance.


In the same Morristown neighborhood.


So, for the third time, Rice County Emergency Management is coordinating volunteer clean-up efforts. We need your help. This Saturday, October 20, exactly a month after those storms.


More damage in the same block in Morristown.


Although I’ve not joined these organized efforts, I assisted a friend after three trees fell in her yard, one landing on her house. Randy and I also checked on and helped an elderly neighbor. And then we got around to removing two limbs from our yard, with the help of a friend and his chainsaw.


More tornado damage in Morristown.


Do you see a word repeating in this post? That would be help. After a devastating storm like this, help is essential.


In a nearby neighborhood in Morristown, roof damage.


If you can help, register beginning at 7:30 a.m. Saturday for a two or four-hour shift at volunteer headquarters, the 4-H building at the Rice County Fairgrounds on the north side of Faribault. It seems fitting that the 4-H building serves as the coordination center. Part of the 4-H motto includes pledging hands to larger service.


Twisted trees, the telltale signs of a tornado, these near the water tower in Morristown.


Lots of hands are needed to remove trees and brush, pick up debris from farm fields and more.


This damaged Camaro is parked in the Morristown neighborhood hard hit by a September 20 tornado.


We’re only an hour from Minneapolis along Interstate 35. We’d welcome you from the metro to help us, your neighbors to the south. We’d welcome you from Iowa to help your neighbors to the north. We’d welcome anyone with the ability to help.


In the countryside near Morristown.


As I’ve been out and about the county during the weeks since the storms, I’ve noted the destruction and all of the work yet to be done. It’s heartbreaking really to see homes destroyed, farm buildings demolished, chunks of metal strewn across fields, and endless uprooted and damaged trees (including in my neighborhood).

Help is definitely needed. But so is the hope that help brings.

I have friends waiting for claims adjusters, contractor estimates and insurance payments. They’re waiting for contractors to replace roofs, siding, rafters, a garage door, fences… It’s stressful and, sometimes, overwhelming. They, and so many others, need to know someone, anyone, cares. And care comes in two ways, via help and hope.

FYI: Click here to read more detailed information about this Saturday’s volunteer clean-up efforts.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


After the storm: help still needed & positive words October 5, 2018

A tree fell onto these vehicles in my neighborhood during a September 20 storm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2018.


WHEN STRONG WINDS roiled layers of ominous clouds here in southeastern Minnesota on Wednesday, I experienced angst while watching the shifting grey sky. Only two weeks earlier multiple tornadoes and strong straight line winds caused extensive damage in my county. Wednesday’s high winds shook loose limbs, including at my neighbor’s house, and felled trees weakened by that September 20 storm. I worry about the many dangling limbs and weakened trees still looming over properties and roadways.


If you are experienced with a chainsaw, your help is especially needed on Saturday. This photo was taken in my neighborhood after the September 20 storm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2018.


We’re still recovering from the earlier storm. And we need your help. For the second consecutive weekend, Rice County Emergency Management is seeking volunteers to help with county-wide storm debris clean-up from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m. at the county fairgrounds, 1814 Second Avenue Northwest, in Faribault. Click here to read all the details about what to bring, expectations, transportation to clean-up sites and more. Or call the toll-free storm hotline at 833-643-7423.

If you’re free and able, consider joining other volunteers in this effort. What a great opportunity for church youth groups, sports teams, families, anyone really, to help others in a tangible way. We welcome your assistance.


Cedar Lake Electric crews did electrical work at my house and a neighbor’s place the day after the storm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2018.


FOLLOWING THE STORM, Randy and I needed an electrician to replace the electrical line, mast and meter ripped from our house. We expected the wait to be long. But it wasn’t. Cedar Lake Electric of rural Faribault had the repair work done by noon the day after the storm. I’m thankful for that prompt service before the company was swamped by other requests.

Yesterday I got our $850 bill from Cedar Lake, which was much less than I expected. (We have a $1,000 deductible on our property insurance.)

But I also got more—a note tucked inside the envelope with a message of pride and gratitude worth sharing.

Here’s the first paragraph of that note, titled AFTER THE STORM:

Cedar Lake Electric is extremely proud of our employees for coming together and working many long hours to help our customers after the recent tornadoes/storms. While the weather raised havoc on our beautiful community, the positive spirit felt within our Cedar Lake Electric family was very apparent as crews were dispatched from one tragedy to another. The many powerful stories we heard from our customers and the tremendous damage our electricians saw was profound. Several of our own employees had storm damage that waited for days while they serviced our customers. Cedar Lake Electric could not have done it without our incredible crew!

Reread that paragraph. I read so many positive words: extremely proud, coming together, beautiful community, positive spirit, incredible crew.

And selflessness. It’s there, too, in that statement about Cedar Lake employees waiting for days to deal with storm damage at their homes.

This brief note enclosed with my invoice exemplifies goodness, neighbor helping neighbor. It was refreshing to read in the storminess of today’s world.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From Faribault: The storm, the aftermath, the stories of kindness September 22, 2018

A tree fell onto these vehicles in my neighborhood during storms Thursday evening.


TORNADOES TERRIFY ME. So when severe weather, with the possibility of tornadoes, was forecast for southern Minnesota Thursday afternoon into evening, I felt a bit on edge. Not overly worried. But with the underlying thought that storms could happen here.

They did.


On the side street by my home, crews strategize the day after the storm.


Multiple confirmed tornadoes touched down in southern Minnesota Thursday evening, including one near Faribault. My community of some 24,000 was also hard hit by strong winds of up to 110 mph which destroyed the airport and ravaged my Willow Street/Tower Place/First Avenue Southwest neighborhood and many other neighborhoods.


The front page of the Faribault Daily News, September 22, 2018.


Two Faribault men are recovering from injuries sustained when a tree fell on them during the storm, according to a report in the Faribault Daily News.

In nearby small towns, it’s a similar story with downed trees and power lines and damage to vehicles and homes. In Morristown, though, homes were leveled and others uninhabitable.

From Granada to Cannon Falls, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms swept a swath of destruction across the landscape—demolishing farm buildings, flattening crops, downing too many trees and power lines to count.

Those stories I’ve read online and in print. The stories I’m sharing today are mine from observations and conversations. These are the stories that touched my heart, that even made me cry. But first, I’ll start with the sirens sounding and then, the storm.


My next-door neighbor’s flag was ripped from the pole, landing in the top of an evergreen.



It’s around 6:15 p.m. Thursday and I’ve just finished the dinner dishes. Randy is deciding whether to replace the radiator in our car or head to the basement to work on a stained glass window project for our church. He chooses the window.

He has just stepped into the shower when emergency warning sirens begin blasting. I look outside to a sky that seems anything but threatening. I switch on the TV. A tornado warning for Rice County and many other Minnesota counties scrolls across the bottom of the screen. I turn on the radio. The announcer warns listeners to seek shelter immediately with precise times the storms are expected to hit each community. Target time in Faribault is 10 minutes. I storm into the bathroom. As is typical with Randy, he shows little hurry, little concern, about the storm warning.

I already feel my anxiety rising. He did not witness the aftermath of a killer tornado that claimed nine lives and injured 125 in Tracy, Minnesota, in June 1968. I did. A tornado also hit my family farm and my hometown years after that. I grew up with a respect for tornadoes. I hope I can convince him this is serious.

As Randy showers, I close windows, gather flashlights, scoop up my camera bag and external hard drive. Within that 10-minute time frame we are in the basement with our cellphones, the radio tuned to the local station, airing its usual 6:30 p.m. reciting of the Rosary. I want local up-to-date weather news.


This image shows the conduit and power line ripped from our house, the wire lying across the driveway. Randy backed the van across the neighbor’s lawn to get out.


It doesn’t matter. Not long after, a loud bang sounds and the power goes out.

Randy continues cutting stained glass while I worry and text our daughter traveling in California. We hear and see little in our basement with two glass block windows. It’s probably better that way. But when I hear a roar, I ask whether that is rolling thunder or the signature tornado sound of a train. Randy says thunder, but not with significant confidence. Sirens continue to wail off and on for nearly 40 minutes. I’ve never heard emergency warning sirens blare that often for that long. Ever. I understand this is serious.

Our phones blast emergency alerts: Tornado Warning in this area til 7:00 PM CDT. Take shelter now. Check local media.–NWS

To say I am terrified would be accurate. I continue to text family who are keeping us updated from media accounts. We are trying to conserve our cellphone batteries with no way to charge them.

Around 7:10 p.m., we emerge from the basement to survey the damage.


Energy crews are working long shifts, up to 16 hours one worker said, to restore power in Faribault and neighboring towns. We were without electricity for 26 hours. Power could be out for 4 – 5 days for some people.



We are fortunate. In the last remnants of daylight, we see that the power line and meter are ripped from our house, the line slicing diagonally across our driveway behind the van. Everywhere, across our arterial street and up side streets, trees block roadways. It’s a mess.

As rain falls, we walk a half-block in the dark, my concern mounting that we could encounter fallen power lines. I don’t feel safe. Traffic is metro rush hour heavy and I wonder why the heck all these people are out and about. A man directs traffic around a fallen tree blocking a lane of Willow Street.

There is nothing we can do. Damage assessment will come at daybreak.


Across the street along Willow Street early Friday morning.



We are up early after a restless night of little sleep. In the light of morning, we see trees down everywhere in our neighborhood. Passing by the remnants of a fallen tree, Randy points to three squirrels clinging to the trunk. They are shaking.


A half block from my home trees fell onto two vehicles along First Avenue Southwest.


Up the hill, just a half-block away, a tree lies across a car and a van in a driveway. We chat with the homeowner, who says both can be replaced. Life can’t. It’s a theme we hear repeated.


Across from our house along Willow Street.



Crews line Tower Place, the side street by my house, as they work all day Friday and also into Saturday.


A downed tree blocks First Avenue Southwest a short distance from our house at its intersection with Tower Place.


A young man pauses to talk to us. He’s checking on his brother. At one point during our conversation, I mention that we are conserving our cellphone power. He continues up the hill. Within 10 minutes, he approaches us as we chat with an elderly neighbor. “Here, I want you to have this,” Xavion says and hands me a cellphone charger. “God bless you.” I am crying at the kindness of this young father. He asks to pray with us. So there we are, the morning after the storm, standing in our neighbor’s front yard, the four of us circled, hands joined, Xavion praying. It will not be the first time of circled prayer. This marks a profoundly powerful moment for me, this giving of thanks by a kind stranger in the aftermath of the storm.


Three trees fell at my friend Lisa’s house, one against her house. This tree will be removed by professionals. Two others were removed by a friend and a crew of workers including Randy and me.



I expect many in my community could share similar stories of kindness. At Basilleos Pizza on Friday evening, Manager Connie tells us how, earlier in the day, staff baked 30 pizzas and then gave them to random people working on storm clean-up.

Saturday morning my friend Lisa’a neighbor drops off bottled water for the crew of 16 assisting with tree clean-up. Several others also bring water and another friend drops off scalloped potatoes, grapes and homemade cookies.


A city worker carries a chainsaw to clear a tree from a street in my neighborhood late Friday afternoon.


City crews clear away a tree blocking First Avenue Southwest.


The buzz of chainsaws is nearly constant throughout Faribault.


City crews continue tree clean-up.


An email went out the afternoon prior to show up at 9 a.m. at Lisa’s house. Three teens arrive with their dad and grandparents. A couple who live nearby also come; they’d stopped by on Friday with Klondike bars after losing power. Hours later when we’ve finished clean-up, we gather in a circle, all of us holding hands, the nearby neighbor—a pastor I would learn afterward—leading us in prayer.


Still working along Tower Place.


A shot through my dining room window of Xcel Energy crew members working on lines to reconnect to our house.


At the end of our driveway, workers prepare to string new power lines.


We have much to be thankful for. Each other. Protection. A beautiful Saturday of sunshine. Caring neighbors and co-workers and friends and strangers and professionals. It is said that difficult times bring out the best in people. I witnessed that firsthand in Faribault in the aftermath of this storm.


FYI: You won’t see photos of damage outside my neighborhood (except at my friend’s house) as local officials advise gawkers to stay out of storm-damaged areas.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Part I: Minnesota disasters up close April 14, 2016

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

The panel to the right introduces the Minnesota Disasters exhibit with each panel featuring a different disaster in our state.

DISASTER. How do you define that word? In a Minnesota Historical Society Traveling Exhibit currently displayed at the Steele County History Center in Owatonna, disaster covers everything from tornadoes to the 35W bridge collapse to the grasshopper plague, drought, blizzards and more.

I personally remember many Minnesota disasters—such as the bridge collapse; the Halloween blizzard of 1991; the 1998 St. Peter-Comfrey tornadoes; the 1968 Tracy tornado which killed nine; the drought of 1976; and the devastating floods of September 2010.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota's deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

During Severe Weather Awareness Week, we prepare for dangerous storms like tornadoes. One panel in the exhibit highlights some of Minnesota’s deadliest and most devastating tornadoes. The Tracy tornado was not included.

This week, Minnesota Severe Weather Awareness Week, seems an appropriate time to focus on the topic of disasters and to show you the MHS exhibit, Minnesota Disasters: Stories of Strength and Survival.

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, 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 retainted by Lantz.

I expect many of you have been, at some point, personally impacted by a disaster. The deadly Tracy tornado forever put the fear of tornadoes in my heart. That southwestern Minnesota community lies only 25 miles from my hometown; I saw the devastation in Tracy. Decades later, a tornado damaged the farm where I grew up and high winds partially ripped the roof from my home church of St. John’s Lutheran in Vesta. I respect the powerful forces of nature, specifically of wind.

A debris pile on the edge of the church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof and brick from the bell tower. Photo taken in September 2011.

A debris pile on the edge of the St. John’s Lutheran Church parking lot includes pieces of steel from the roof (covered with a tarp here) and brick from the bell tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2011.

Elsewhere in Minnesota—in Belview, St. Peter and individual farm sites across Minnesota—I’ve seen the damage a tornado can cause.  I reported on and photographed tornado damage while working as a newspaper reporter. When a tornado warning siren blows, you won’t see me standing in the driveway looking for the twister. I’ll be sheltering in the basement.

I cannot imagine so many grasshoppers that they obliterated everything.

I cannot imagine grasshoppers so thick that they obliterated everything.

As I perused the MHS disaster exhibit and the accompanying stories of disasters in Steele County, I realized the depth of loss Minnesotans have endured. The Grasshopper Plague of 1873-1877 recounts how locusts devoured even the laundry hanging on clotheslines.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

I knew nothing of the flooding at the Milford Mine until I read this panel.

On February 5, 1924, forty-one miners drowned in the Milford Mine near Crosby in northern Minnesota. “For God’s sake, run!” one miner shouted to his co-workers. A warning like that floods the mind with fear. I’d never heard of the mine disaster until touring the MHS exhibit in Owatonna. Now I’ll never forget it.

Because I have extended family in the Hinckley area, I was fully aware of The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894 which claimed 418 lives. To read of feet baking inside shoes and stockings from the fire is horrifying.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

The devastation of dust and drought are covered in this panel.

As bad as those and many other natural disasters, Minnesotans voted the drought of the 1920s and 30s (the Dust Bowl era) as the “number-one state weather event of the 20th century,” according to information posted in the exhibit. I was born decades after that disaster. But, as a teen, I recall a Good Friday dust storm that blew into Redwood County. We were shopping in nearby Marshall and arrived home to find the house layered in dirt; we’d left the windows open. For hours we worked to wash away the grime.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I think my uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck to reach the milkhouse.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our rural Vesta driveway in this March 1965 photo. My uncle drove over from a neighboring farm to help open the drive so the milk truck could reach the milkhouse. I’m standing here with my mom, older brother and three younger siblings.

Blizzards, especially, imprinted upon my memory. There is nothing like a prairie blizzard that drives snow across open farm fields, sculpting the snow into rock-hard drifts around buildings and trees. Those winter storms of the 1960s and mid-1970s created all kinds of problems with roads closed, the power out and cows to be milked. Snowstorms of today don’t compare. And, no, I didn’t walk two miles to school uphill in a blizzard. Rather, in one particularly snowy winter, I rode to town on my dad’s cab-less John Deere tractor so I could catch the bus at Don’s Cafe to ride the 20 miles to junior high school in Redwood Falls. The bus drove sometimes on a single lane cut through snowbanks higher than the bus.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

More panels in the Minnesota Disasters exhibit.

Tell me, what’s your story of dealing with a natural disaster? If you don’t have one, be thankful.

FYI: Check back tomorrow for a look at disasters in Steele County, Minnesota. The disasters exhibit will be on display through March 2017 at the history center in Owatonna. Click here for more information.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


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

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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


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.


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


Terrifying tornado tales from Minnesota June 24, 2010

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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.


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


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