Path of destruction: Tornadoes tear through Parkers Prairie, Almora, WadenaLast Thursday’s tornadoes that took a life in Almora and left widespread devastation in Wadena also rolled through Douglas County. But its mark was not as big or lasting.
By: Celeste Beam, Alexandria Echo Press
Last Thursday’s tornadoes that took a life in Almora and left widespread devastation in Wadena also rolled through Douglas County.
But its mark was not as big or lasting.
Although it didn’t cause as much commotion in the lakes area, Douglas County law enforcement officials, emergency personnel and weather spotters had their hands full.
As storms were starting to brew Thursday shortly after 2 p.m., Douglas County Chief Deputy Brad Lake stood in the dispatch area of the Douglas County Law Enforcement Center monitoring the radar on a computer screen.
The storms were coming from the direction of Morris into the southwest corner of Douglas County.
“I watched it grow and head into the Kensington area,” said Lake. He noted that the public probably wouldn’t have noticed, but there were actually two systems that were moving through the area.
Most of the information the county receives comes from the National Weather Service out of Chanhassen, which is near the Twin Cities.
Officials first learned that the storm had the potential of producing hail and damaging winds. The first weather alerts were sent out at 2:40 p.m., said Lake.
Shortly after the severe storm warning was issued, authorities were notified that the storm was intensifying and that the county was now under a tornado warning.
“It was kind of interesting to watch it build,” said Lake. “It was building with more and more intensity, and as it was moving, there was potential of Alexandria being right in the track.”
Lake noted that when the storm first entered Douglas County, it was moving in a northeasterly direction, but then switched to a more northern direction before it hit Alexandria.
The two storms moving through were about five minutes apart, he said, but were hard to distinguish from one another.
As law enforcement personnel tracked the storm on the computer, they decided that weather spotters would be needed. Kensington area spotters were paged at 2:48 p.m. and about a minute later, weather spotters from Leaf Valley, Brandon, Garfield, Millerville and Evansville were paged. And shortly after that, all weather spotters in all areas of Douglas County were on the alert.
With his eye on the radar and the building storm, Lake saw the two storm systems merge into one – right over the Evansville/Brandon area.
“On screen, we could definitely see the areas of intensity,” said Lake.
As it kept moving more to the north and a little to the east, law enforcement decided to sound the tornado sirens in Leaf Valley. And within seconds, tornado sirens could be heard not just in Leaf Valley, but in just about the whole northwestern portion of Douglas County, Lake said.
Besides weather spotters, Douglas County sheriff’s deputies were also out watching the weather conditions.
Deputies reported that funnel clouds did touch down in portions of Douglas County but that they quickly and immediately went back up.
“No question, there was tornado activity, but it quickly dissipated,” said Lake, who called it a “shy tornado.”
He said there were a couple of “touchdowns” around 3:15 p.m. One was near the intersection of County Road 35 and Dove Lane, which is north of Lake Miltona about three and a half miles.
Because the conditions were worsening, Lake said it was time for him to leave the dispatch center and head out on the highway to check the weather himself.
He said people can’t predict the exact path of a storm and weather experts can only guesstimate how fast it’s moving. Storms can be very unpredictable, he said.
As he started driving toward the direction of Leaf Valley and Millerville, Lake could see the cloud formations and had a better feel for the scope of the storm.
“In 20 years, this was the most sinister cloud system I’ve seen in this area,” Lake said. “I was at the tail end of it, about five minutes behind it. Some of the clouds above me felt like I could reach out and touch them. It was like you could see little fingers coming down. It was a pretty scary air mass.”
Lake also noted that there were times he thought he might have been a little too close for comfort.
As the storm passed out of the Douglas County area and made its way into Otter Tail County, Lake and another deputy made their way to Almora, a small town of 20 people about seven miles north of Parkers Prairie.
A tornado had ripped through the town, leaving behind a mass of destruction, devastation and heartache – Margie Schulke, 78, died as a result of the tornado. She was found across the road from where her mobile home once stood. Her husband, Norman Schulke, was also injured and taken to the Douglas County Hospital.
Lake and another deputies were the first Douglas County personnel to arrive on scene.
They were helping to survey the area, checking in on houses and with people to make sure they were OK.
“To see the looks on the faces of those people, many just stepping out of their houses for the first time,” said Lake. “Their eyes were big with shock. It really tugs at the heartstrings and you just want to help in anyway you can.”
Prior to the storm moving through Almora, it ripped through a portion of Parkers Prairie, knocking down trees and destroying barns, including three 500-foot turkey barns on a farm owned by Terry and Janet Carlson of Parkers Prairie. (See related story.) The Carlsons had 25,000 turkeys in the barns at the time of the tornado and have estimated that more than half of the birds perished.
Lake, along with other Douglas County deputies, spent about an hour in Almora before a mutual aid call came in from Wadena – the area hardest hit by a devastating tornado.
The call for mutual aid came into the Douglas County dispatch center around 5:30 p.m., said Lake.
Because he didn’t want to leave anyone out, Lake didn’t name each and every individual from the Douglas County area who headed to Wadena, but noted that there were police officers, sheriff deputies, State Patrol officers and numerous first responders, firefighters and other emergency management personnel.
Lake said he was proud of this area to see the number of people who were willing to help.
“We were very lucky. It [the storm] did all its building here in our county and then moved into Otter Tail,” said Lake. “But it’s devastating for them. It seems we lucked out – this time.”