Ten years ago, as the skies blackened above tiny Almora in Otter Tail County, Brian Schulke called his grandparents, Margie and Norman Schulke, who lived in a mobile home just down the road.
“I told them they could come to my house if they wanted,” he said. “They said they were going to be fine.”
Schulke had a basement; his grandparents did not. After he got off the phone, he went downstairs. Then the tornado hit, an EF-4 monster, among the most devastating tornadoes recorded. Amid the roar of the storm, the windows in his house blew out. When the noise subsided, he emerged from the basement, went outside, and looked toward his grandparents’ home.
It was gone.
‘They didn’t have a clue’
Almora is a fistful of homes on a grid of about six streets, 29 miles north of Alexandria and 22 miles southwest of Wadena. It’s surrounded by farm fields and hemmed on the west by a railroad track. There’s no gas station here; and no post office or school.
There’s no tornado siren in Almora, either, and in 2010, most people weren’t getting weather alerts on smartphones.
Still, residents became aware of the approaching storm, either by the radio or in person. Vicki Downing heard it on the radio and sped over to the home where her daughter lived with two little children and her husband. Two small nieces were also there that day.
“They didn’t have a clue,” she recalled.
They rode out the storm downstairs. Downing said she didn’t remember any sound like a freight train, but she could hear things blowing around and hitting the house, including a tree that landed on the entry.
Mark Schulke, Brian’s dad, was playing cards at the barber shop in Parkers Prairie and was about to head home when someone stopped him. Word spread that the weather was looking pretty bad, and everybody should stay put.
When the weather cleared, he began driving home. He didn’t have far to go when his way was blocked by the fire department. Up ahead lay the chaotic wreckage and twisted trees left in the tornado’s wake. It was where his parents’ home had been.
“I didn’t know anything,” he said. “At first I heard they were both dead.”
Where it touched down
The tornado touched down about three miles northeast of Leaf Valley at about 3:45 p.m., according to the National Weather Service. Reaching wind speeds of 175 mph, it arrived in Almora just before 4 p.m.
At that time, Reese Aldrich was at work at Aagard in Alexandria when a co-worker passed along a report that a tornado was going through his community. It wasn’t long before his brother called him to say he could see no sign of Aldrich’s house.
As it happened, nobody was home at Aldrich’s home that day. His wife, Nikki, was heading home when suddenly the radio “went crazy,” she recalled, and she realized she was driving into dangerous weather.
The neighbors’ house was gone
After the tornado passed, Downing walked several blocks home to check on her horses. Power lines were down; emergency responders were starting to arrive. Tombstones were toppled in the cemetery and cattle were in places where they shouldn’t have been.
“It was an eerie feeling,” she recalled. “It was so surreal. It was like something on TV. You looked around and it was devastation.”
Her home suffered some damage, but not much. Her horses were OK, but couldn’t get access to water because the power was out, something she didn’t even realize until friends from Urbank, who also owned horses, came to get hers.
When a neighbor came over to check on her, he looked to the southeast.
“Where’s Reece and Nikki’s house?” he asked.
Finding his grandfather
Brian Schulke got into his pickup truck and hurried to where his grandparents’ home had been. The garage was intact, but there was debris everywhere, and the mobile home had blown across the road and flopped over.
By the mailbox, beneath a piece of wall from the mobile home, he saw his grandfather’s feet.
“I got that wall off him and then I called 911,” he said.
His grandfather’s eyes were open, but he couldn’t move.
"Where is she?” he asked.
Brian couldn’t answer him because he didn’t know. His grandmother, 79, who always had a hug for him and a kiss on the cheek, who loved playing whist and made great fried chicken, was nowhere in sight. Rescue workers found her body, later, not far from where his grandfather was lying. In a bedroom, she had been killed instantly when the twister bore down on their mobile home. Her husband had gone to close an outside door, and the tornado had apparently sucked him out just as it barreled into their home, Mark Schulke said.
Margie was one of three people killed by tornadoes in Minnesota that day. The others were in Polk and Freeborn counties.
The tornado that struck Almora left a trail of destruction that was 1.3 miles wide in places and 39 miles long. It didn’t lift off the ground until it was about 10 miles north of Bluffton, about 4:45 p.m. It was one of 48 tornadoes to strike Minnesota that day, and one of three EF4 tornadoes. Tornadoes are ranked on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, and EF4 tornadoes are those that reach speeds of 166-200 mph. The most devastating tornadoes, EF5, are those that exceed 200 mph.
In the aftermath, dazed residents discovered that some vehicles had been flung hundreds of feet and that several homes and farmsteads were destroyed, with many others damaged.
Survivors said the storm’s aftermath brought out the good people — and the bad.
The good people came with chainsaws and grills and bottles of water. The bad ones came to scavenge. Norman lost $15,000 in cash that day, Mark Schulke said. He kept it in a jar, and the tornado scattered hundred dollar bills all over. He saw people he didn’t know keeping things they found.
His daughter, he said, found $600 wrapped in insulation and stuck in a tree, and returned it to her grandfather. Even though the sheriff blocked the roads, friends reported seeing lights up at the home site at night, and they went up to chase them off.
The Aldriches lost almost everything. For days, they wore borrowed socks and underwear. The clothes discovered in the debris looked intact at first glimpse, but up close were riddled with tiny holes like they had been sandblasted. Pieces of their red shed were found far away. Their vehicles, including several collector cars, were damaged. Insulation covered everything.
“You clean and you clean and you clean,” Reece said. “I just burned another pile of rubble two weeks ago.”
They have rebuilt on the same spot, and their new house has a wide porch they love. Reece’s guitars, the ones he cared the most about survived.
“And the cast iron,” Nikki added. “You can’t kill that.”
Down the road, Norman Schulke also lives at the same place, in a new manufactured home.
He hasn’t said much about the tornado in the years since, his family says. Mark Schulke said his father suffered more than 20 broken bones and missed his wife’s funeral because he was in the hospital. After his release, he recovered at Knute Nelson for a while before moving in with Mark. Eventually, he moved a new home onto his land and lived there independently until last year, when Mark moved in with him.
Now 80, Norman uses a walker to get around, resting frequently. He’s a survivor. Both parents died before he was 11, said his son Steve Schulke, an Alexandria fishing guide. He was raised by relatives, and went to work at a young age. All his brothers and sisters are gone; he’s the only one who lived past the age of 62, Steve said.
“I was right here when it happened,” Norman said, sitting on his porch. “I got throwed out by the road there.”
He said he couldn’t remember who found him or what happened when the tornado hit.
But the agony of that day stays with him in three words: “She got killed,” he said.