by Jim Boyle
Sherburne and Freeborn counties got smacked Monday, March 6, with the notorious distinction of being home to the earliest tornadoes on record in Minnesota.
Orrock and Baldwin townships near Zimmerman were struck by an EF-1 with estimated wind speeds topping out at 100-110 mph. The twister cut a 8.9-mile path starting at 5:39 p.m. near the northwest corner of Lake Ann in Orrock (about 5 miles west of Zimmerman).
As it moved north and east, it tore along the western and northern edges of Little Elk Lake in Baldwin before its violent energy dissipated at about 5:55 p.m. before reaching Highway 169. The storm also produced non-tornadic scattered tree damage in a few locations, including on the east side of Highway 169 just south of Princeton.
It’s estimated 3,000 people lost power in the storm that downed many power lines and also brought wind, rain and hail.
“I’m absolutely grateful there were no injuries or lives lost,” Sherburne County Commissioner Lisa Fobbe said. “That was the spirit shared by everyone.”
Shawn DeVinny, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service, and a team of meteorologists toured the hardest hits areas of the storm on Tuesday before confirming their suspicions that it was in fact a tornado.
“I never thought I would be doing a damage assessment on a March 7 after a March 6 tornado,” said, DeVinny, who has been with the weather service for seven years. He sat next to and assisted the meteorologist who issued the warnings on Monday for Sherburne and Freeborn counties.
There were uprooted trees and building damage near Clarks Grove in Freeborn County in southern Minnesota.
Several hundred reports of severe weather were observed across the central United States. Minnesota and Wisconsin had mostly damaging wind along with some large hail.
Tour of damage
Sherburne County Emergency Services Director Kyle Breffle led DeVinny and his colleagues on a tour of the hardest hit areas.
It was discovered the area around Lake Ann endured the highest wind speeds and the residents in the area surrounding Little Elk Lake suffered more damage to their homes. The tornado lifted an entire roof off one home. Many had humongous hardwood trees come crashing into their homes.
DeVinny said the assessment was like no other he has experienced. It was the first time he had to watch out for ice and trample on snow, for one.
“It’s usually hot out and the trees are usually filled with leaves. The trees were bare,” he said. “This is something I have never seen.”
The old record for earliest tornado on record had been March 18, so these twisters came nearly two weeks early to shatter the record, DeVinny said.
The tornado reached its peak of 300 yards at Elk Lake.
“It was a moderate-sized tornado,” DeVinny said. “What makes it impressive, though, is that it was that big in early March.
“We have had twisters as narrow as 25 to 50 feet. This was nothing to scoff at.”
Numerous roads remain closed on Tuesday following Monday’s storm as county, township and electrical crews continued cleanup and restoration efforts in the Zimmerman area.
Fobbe also got a tour.
“I was moved by the destruction,” Fobbe said, noting the storm brought back memories of straight-line winds falling down on a previous residence of hers near Lake Ann. “Never underestimate the power of weather or the importance of heeding safety warnings. This is a good wake-up call for us never to take these for granted.”
Residential neighborhoods were closed at County Road 15 at 253 1/2 and 257th Avenues, and at 165th Street at 257th Avenue in the Ann Lake area of Orrock Township.
Additionally, 290th Avenue was closed at 138th and 142nd streets on the north end of Big Elk Lake in Baldwin Township to allow crews clear access for repairs and tree removal.
Volunteers were not being sought as the Sheriff’s Office asked nonresidents to avoid these areas in an effort to keep roadways clear.
Dozens of homes suffered significant damage as a result of the storm.
By Wednesday, all roads were passable again.
As clean up continues, the communities are rallying around those whose homes and properties have been damaged.
“That’s our small town charm and warmth,” Fobbe said.