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'Historic and unreal' December storms leave trail of damage in Minnesota

16December 2021

HARTLAND, MINN. – J.R. Henderson heard the sirens Wednesday night. He knew a windstorm, maybe even a tornado, was headed for this town about 90 miles south of the Twin Cities.

And just as he opened his front door to check the skies, it arrived like a sledgehammer.

“I opened the door and — bang!” the retired electrical lineman said Thursday, standing in a living room strewn with broken glass, shards of wood and chunks of a neighbor’s garage.

Henderson’s wife, Joyce, was thrown to the kitchen floor by the force of what National Weather Service investigators confirmed was a tornado with winds of at least 110 mph.

“And I stayed down!” she said, waiting for the storm to pass. It only took seconds, the Hendersons said. But the damage to their home likely will take weeks to repair. Windows all along the front of the house were blown out, and the couple’s 38-foot mobile home sat overturned in the alley behind their home.

A strong line of storms more reminiscent of May than December marched across the state Wednesday night, leaving a trail of damage and dropping the first tornadoes ever reported in Minnesota in December. Officials confirmed one death, a 65-year-old Olmsted County man killed when a tree fell on him.

Four other deaths were reported in the Midwest as the group of severe storms swept through the region, with unseasonably warm weather spawning hurricane-force winds and possible tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa as well.

Chris Burt, a historian for the Weather Co., wrote in a Facebook post that the extremely high temperatures — reaching 70 degrees in places — and powerful winds constituted “among the most (if not THE most) anomalous weather event ever on record for the Upper Midwest.”

In addition to the Hartland twister, the Weather Service confirmed that a tornado hit just south of Lewiston in Winona County. Until Wednesday, the latest Minnesota had ever seen a tornado was in Maple Plain on Nov. 16, 1931.

Wednesday’s storms were “historic and unreal,” said Mike Kurz, a meteorologist with the weather service’s La Crosse, Wis., office. And damaging.

In Hartland, the town’s main drag, Broadway Street, was littered with broken glass, bricks and crumpled sheets of metal siding peeled off buildings by the wind. Stout wooden utility poles were snapped, and downed power lines snaked everywhere as utility crews worked to restore power. Officials said Hartland was still without power Thursday evening, and more than 50 power poles were broken in the county.

The Arcadian Bank and three or four other downtown businesses took direct hits and sustained major damage, said Rich Hall of Freeborn County Emergency Management.

Hall estimated that 30 to 35 homes in and near town sustained some damage. Other buildings outside the city suffered damage ranging from “minor to major,” he said, but he knew of no injuries.

Resident Noah Nielsen saw all the destruction. He had been out taking photos of the lightning and had just driven back into town when an electrical transformer above him “blew up,” he said. Then about 50 yards in front of him bricks began peeling off buildings and the wind picked up a gazebo and tossed it into the side of the bank, he said.

“Any closer and I would have been in it,” Nielsen said.

After hitting Hartland about 7 p.m., the storm moved north and east and damaged homes near Lewiston and in Plainview produced wind gusts of 85 mph. Initial reports there indicated another tornado touched down. That was not confirmed, despite reports Wednesday night, Kurz said. A report of a twister near Eyota turned out to be strong winds, he said.

The confirmed Lewiston twister, near County Road 25 south of town, damaged a garage, a barn and some grain silos just after 8 p.m., said Ben Klinger with Winona County Emergency Management.

“It felt strange all day yesterday,” Klinger said.

In Rochester, the fire department responded to 35 calls that included multiple small fires, gas leaks, downed power lines, and other hazards caused by falling trees. A 65-year-old man in Haverhill Township died after a 40-foot tree fell on him while he was outside smoking.

There were more than 20 tornado reports Wednesday in the Plains states, scattered mostly through eastern Nebraska and Iowa, based on preliminary reports to the Storm Prediction Center. The governors of Kansas and Iowa declared states of emergency.

The unseasonable weather in Minnesota pushed the mercury in the Twin Cities to a record-high 58 degrees, before plunging more than 30 degrees in the evening. The warmth combined with the rain melted most of the snowpack at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport where only a trace remained.

The winds blew a semitrailer truck off Hwy. 15 in Nicollet County and toppled another on I-90 in Winona County, knocking down trees and power lines across a wide swath of the southern part of the state.

Trees were down and there was “lots of structural damage” to barns, homes and businesses near LeRoy and Grand Meadow, said Mower County Emergency Manager Amy Lammey. The county was still receiving reports as of mid-morning, she said.

To the north, residents were dealing with weather more typical for this time of year. Several areas across northern Minnesota received 1 to 3 inches of snow overnight, the Weather Service said.

Back in Hartland, some residents were still trying to process Wednesday’s events.

“Yesterday was probably the nicest day we’ve had in a long time,” said Alex Dahlen. “And all of a sudden it’s the worst day of the year.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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