Ken Allen and his three sons labored to fix a dock battered by the ice of winter past when wife Barb appeared on the porch.
Get in here now! she barked.
The timbre of her voice said she was serious. By the time they scurried to the basement of their Excelsior home, a breeze had turned full squall. The sky spit quarter-sized hail. Ninety seconds later, God unleashed hell.
It felt like an adventure to 15-year-old son Harry. A beast of a tornado had invaded from Chanhassen to the south, and was now auguring a path four football fields wide, directly above their heads.
Harry remembers feeling small. He heard 200 mph winds indiscriminately thrashing boats, bricks, and trees, then hurling them at will. It left as quickly as it arrived.
The storm would be the first of eight tornadoes to ransack the Twin Cities area on May 6, 1965. Thirteen people perished. Nearly 1,000 were hurt. The damage in 2016 dollars would be in the billions.
When the Allens emerged, stillness and broken glass received them at the top of the stairs. Pines that had towered over houses were now snapped at the base. Gone was the house next door. Impaled atop a nearby roof was the 16-foot sailboat belonging to older brother Bill.
The twisters that night “terrorized this area,” says state climatologist Kenny Blumenfeld.
“This will happen again.”
Call it bad timing. The law of averages. The fact that Mother Nature always wins.
According to Blumenfeld and others who study Minnesota’s violent weather, the writing on the wall says the Twin Cities is about to get whacked by a wicked tornado. And it’s going to happen sooner rather than later.
As a tyke in Minneapolis, Blumenfeld caught the tornado bug in elementary school. His show-and-tells were “badly informed” doom-and-gloom stories birthed from an excitable boy’s imagination.
He wishes it were still the case.
Blumenfeld and fellow climatologist Pete Boulay are Minnesota’s severe weather sentinels. Squired away in an office on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, they study storms past to see the thunderclouds of the future.
“We look at all the statistics. We look at the climate here and we go, ‘Wow! There’s going to be a major tornado, or tornado outbreak, some type of weather disaster that really knocks this region out,’” says Blumenfeld.
History and science say so.
Minnesota camps in the tornado wheelhouse, perched along the northern edge of twisters’ preferred stomping grounds. The area’s relationship with the cone-shaped destroyers predates statehood. Settlers in 1820 documented a funnel near the future site of Fort Snelling.
But it’s a relatively young science. Reliable stats date only to 1950. History says Minnesota gets 32 tornadoes annually, the lion’s share in the southern and central parts of the state.
When they have targeted the metro area, they’ve brought the hammer. The Lake Harriet-Har Mar tornado in 1981 sliced a diagonal path from Edina to Roseville, its girth as much as two and a half blocks wide, producing winds equivalent to Hurricane Katrina’s.
The twister wrecked almost 100 homes, required the summoning of National Guard troops to prevent looting, and claimed one life.
A smaller tornado hit Rogers in 2006, destroying 50 houses and killing a 10-year-old girl.
Minneapolis’ 2011 tornado was smaller still, yet winds topped out around 100 mph. One man died. Fifty people were injured. Thousands of homes and buildings on the North Side were damaged.
We’ve been lucky, say Blumenfeld and Boulay. Big twisters have spared the Cities for a half-century. Which means we’re due.
“It’s not on a timer,” Blumenfeld says, “but every decade or so you get a big multiple-event tornado outbreak in Minnesota.”
This is what the climatologists worry about. Though consensus is that climate change is having a negligible effect on the volume and severity, the pair believe a warming planet might be causing storms to cluster, spawning three or more tornadoes, say, in a single afternoon.
Outbreaks in recent years have come close to the metro. Fourteen tornadoes touched down to the south in 1998, including one near St. Peter that was more than a mile wide.
A surge in 2010 had 48 storms to the north and south of the Twin Cities, including four powerful enough to erase neighborhoods.
“All it would take is one day of bad luck to show us real quick why a tornado outbreak is up there as the most severe disaster event we would face,” says Hennepin County Emergency Management Director Eric Waage.
Now is the calm before the storm. And Mother Nature and Father Time are quietly colluding.
The terror of 1965 has been dubbed “The Longest Night.” Over a three-hour period, the storms descended like wave after wave of an invading army. Considering there were so many big tornadoes packing such wrecking power that night, the human toll could have easily been in the hundreds rather than 13.
Survivors and students of the outbreak assign credit for lives saved to WCCO radio and an obedient population.
Host Howard Viken was wrapping up his show early that evening when he was interrupted by weather alerts. The program would fast morph into a forebear of Twitter. As funnels formed, calls from eyewitnesses were put on the air. They communicated the danger in real time.
“Nobody had done that before,” says the National Weather Service’s Todd Krause. “It was a brilliant decision. By doing that they were able to pass along that the threat of tornadoes was real, it was right now, and it was immediate. What WCCO radio did that evening saved many, many lives.”
Like June Peterson’s.
Peterson, her husband, and their two kids were tuned in to the broadcast. When they heard a caller from nearby New Brighton say a massive twister was four miles away from their Mounds View home, barreling toward their neighborhood, the family fled to the basement. Just in time.
The Petersons were alive yet bloodied, looking up at the nighttime sky within minutes. The storm ripped away everything, the floor joists included.
“There was so much noise, and concrete blocks were flying everywhere,” June says. “When it was over, it took us some time to realize the entire house was gone because it was so dark out.”
If people weren’t near a radio, they likely heeded the warning sirens. The outbreak marked the first time the Twin Cities’ public alert system was ever used.
“Based on the number of people killed and hurt, the system in 1965 worked,” says Waage. “It worked because it was the Cold War and everybody was well-trained. They knew they needed to take shelter when they heard the sirens, and that’s exactly what they did.”
Many worry that modern-day Minnesota isn’t prepared to respond so dutifully.
Slouching toward tedium
More people. A diversifying population. A larger metro. Together, they expose the Twin Cities as a soft target like never before.
In 1965, the population of the metro was two million tops.
“We think back to that night in 1965 and those tornadoes, and the one that went by Waconia and up toward Mound,” says Krause, “and much of the area south of there was all farmland. Now, you’ve got subdivisions.”
The region today is home to roughly 3.5 million residents.
“It’s really just a pure numbers game,” says St. Paul Emergency Management Director Rick Larkin. “The exposure, if you want to use that term, is just so much greater, so the potential is there for mass casualties.”
That makes for a 3,000-square-mile bull’s-eye where in excess of 100 languages are spoken.
More than 90 percent of Minnesotans were white and spoke English in 1965. Today, languages like Spanish, Hmong, and Cushite are spoken in some 500,000 households.
“So when we’re talking about public safety warnings, the language is an area of concern, but it’s more than just language,” says Lillian McDonald, director of ECHO, an outreach group working on multilingual communication.
There’s no word for tornado in Somali. Hmong has “storm-like,” but no direct translation. Some of the state’s newer residents, who’ve heard sirens being tested, have misinterpreted them as harbingers of a military attack.
“So basically, if you’re not privileged and you don’t speak English,” Blumenfeld says, “getting the critical information that could save your life and even knowing that it exists is harder.”
McDonald saw firsthand how Hurricane Katrina blindsided New Orleans’ sizable Vietnamese community.
“They didn’t know what was coming or how to prepare for it,” she says, “because there was no mechanism in place to reach them.”
How to warn people who struggle with English is a question without good answers. Then there’s the stubborn impediment of insouciance: We slack on tornadoes because we can.
“The return time for tornadoes in Minnesota, and especially in the Twin Cities, unfortunately, is long enough there’s geographical forgetting,” says Waage.
In other words, geography affords us a short-term memory, which enables a laziness toward peril.
That isn’t the case in places like Oklahoma.
“If you lived [there] and get one of these huge tornadoes every five years or so, you’re extremely tuned in and have a lot of advance measures in place,” Waage says. “They shut down schools, have shelters specifically built for tornadoes. If there’s enough advance warning people will leave their city and go somewhere else.”
Oklahomans did all those things in 2013 as a twister descended upon Moore, a city of 50,000 people. A witness called it “a giant wall of destruction.”
It was a mile and a half wide and released energy estimated to be eight times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
It hit during the afternoon rush hour, ensnaring commuters on choked roadways, reducing nearly 1,200 homes to slabs. One hundred horses were found tangled in power lines and tossed atop buildings.
Two dozen people died, including seven children. Hundreds more were hurt. Damage totaled $2 billion.
And it all happened in 47 minutes.
“If there’s one area that’s our soft underbelly, it’s a complacency of the public,” says Waage. “In our area, we try, the media outlets try, and the forecasters and TV weather people are trying to tell people this is out there. But I worry there’s a significant chunk of people who aren’t listening because they haven’t had to.”
Today’s communication labyrinth compounds the complacency, according to St. Paul’s Larkin. A local person can be globally in-the-know, listening to the BBC’s coverage of a terrorist attack in Turkey while unaware of a tornado sighting only miles away.
In 1965, ’CCO was a news source for up to 70 percent of Minnesotans. Today, that figure is just 5 percent. The two highest-rated stations, KOOL 108 and KS95, together don’t have a third of the listeners ’CCO had when twisters hit five decades ago.
The “many thousands” of outlets competing for attention screams red flag to Waage: “If you’re not careful in your selection to what you’re tuned into, a person can be oblivious and could quickly find themselves in some real danger.”
It all adds up to a very plausible worst-case scenario.
Say it’s the post-work rush hour, which happens to coincide with prime tornado time. Moms, kids, college students on break are preoccupied, doing their summertime thing. Sirens go off. Some heed, many don’t. Thousands of commuters listen to alerts on the radio, but are trapped on highways with nowhere to go. In some homes throughout the region, the warnings flashing in English are meaningless because viewers don’t understand the language.
“We try to tell people, ‘Pay attention!” says Blumenfeld. “This is important. It happened before and will again. It matters to the safety of your family, your neighborhood, your school.’ But when you try to convey that to people, it’s like trying to describe to them the dream you had the other night.”
Don Rossbach has been trying for 51 years. The 88-year-old lives in a different house, but on the same Lois Drive that was steamrolled by 200 mph winds and machine-gunned by debris.
An Army vet who’d been stationed in Japan at the end of World War II, Rossbach wore a can-do virility. When he arrived home from work in Mounds View in May ’65, he wasn’t too keen when his late wife, Dolores, ordered him down to the basement.
The Rossbachs and their children hunkered down for hours, listening to ’CCO on a transistor. Reports came from Carver County and Deephaven. An hour later someone spotted the night’s fifth twister west of Mounds View and headed toward Blaine. Fifty minutes after that an eyewitness warned of yet another big storm. It had touched down in Golden Valley and was making a beeline for Lois Drive.
Rossbach looked out the basement window. Lightning flashed. The air wasn’t breathing. He was mortified to see a neighbor painting the kitchen. Another man was outside surveying the western sky. Rossbach turned the radio off. He told his wife and kids to listen.
The winds angered in a moment. Glass exploded. Don and Dolores shielded the children with hunched bodies. Dolores strained to stay in position as the storm’s vacuum tried to suck her into the gyre.
“If you’ve ever heard a nail being pulled out of a board,” says Don, “it sounded like a thousand carpenters pulling nails, ripping stuff apart. You didn’t even know if the wind was blowing. It was the sound of destruction.”
Clouds on the horizon
In May 2011, storms riddled much of the country from Texas to Canada, east to Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Their scope stupefied. Nearly 250 twisters in six days.
Hours after one hit north Minneapolis and areas northeast, a giant ploughed into Joplin, Missouri, a city of 50,000 people. More than 150 died, 1,200 were injured, with destruction pushing $3 billion.
“I had thought we’d licked large-scale deaths due to a tornado because of our technology, because of the early warnings,” Blumenfeld says. “Then we had Joplin.”
Survivors of the mile-wide Joplin storm, who’d ignored weather alerts, complained of warning fatigue. They’d heard the same sirens on countless occasions when little or nothing came. Why should they have thought this time was different?
“This is the horribly difficult part of the job of forecasters,” says Larkin. “I can tell you because I’m in the room with these men and women, and they struggle to say, ‘When do we put out a warning for this? Or when do we put up a watch that conditions are ripe?’
“People say, ‘Well, they just say that all the time.’ With our Facebook, fast food mentality, I think folks expect with all this technology and this super duper radar [that we can forecast] there’ll be severe weather at this time and this place, and I can tell you we’re just not there.”
Cities and counties now test sirens once a month. The jurisdictions have decided not to sound the alarm for severe thunderstorms or winds less than 70 mph.
When danger is imminent, the Weather Service presses “the ENTER button and the warnings go out to the whole world through the internet and out into every direction,” Krause says.
Emergency management personnel saturate the area using every means possible, from TV to Twitter, cell phones to battle-tested outlets like ’CCO.
Some inroads have been made within non-English speaking populations.
St. Paul has run radio spots about emergency preparedness on the Hmong station. ECHO and Minnesota Public Television have tested alerts translated into Spanish, Somali, and Hmong on public TV.
“Are we where we need to be?” asks ECHO’s McDonald. “No. It’s sort of being done now as best as folks can.”
This, to Blumenfeld, is not close to being enough.
“I fear we have a big severe weather outbreak that causes huge destruction, and I and people who care about this issue are left with a hopeless feeling, asking, ‘What did we do wrong?’”