Tornado strikes Fillmore County
Wednesday, June 01, 2011 4:28 AM
Brian Huggenvik of rural Harmony captured the EF2 tornado that snaked its way across southern Fillmore County on Sunday afternoon, May 22. This series of photos was taken from his home near Big Springs on County Road 22 looking to the southwest.
That might be a fitting word to use after a tornado cut a swath of destruction across Fillmore County on Sunday afternoon. The twister created a 28-mile path from the Iowa border, near Lime Springs, to Harmony, and was rated by the National Weather Service as an EF2 at its strongest. Then it seemed to lift into the supercell storm and continued northeastward, exiting the county in the vicinity of Choice on its eastern border.
Those whose farms and homes sustained serious damage along that storm line might disagree. However, luckily, while several homes sustained substantial damage, none were destroyed.
It also seemed lucky there appeared to be no major injuries. Fillmore County Sheriff Daryl Jensen reported, "We expect there may be some injuries that we don't know about, but we didn't send any ambulances out due to receiving a call." He did report one woman had taken a private vehicle to get care for an injury after the storm.
The luckiest incident of the whole afternoon may have occurred in Harmony. A power outage - perhaps caused by the approaching storm - rendered the community's sirens silent when the tornado warning was issued. Law enforcement vehicles and fire trucks drove through town with sirens blaring and officers yelling for people to take cover. As luck would have it, the tornado missed the town - which would have caused untold destruction - to skirt it one-half mile to the north.
And finally, it was lucky that family, friends and neighbors turned out immediately and in droves to help at the farms struck by the tornado. Actually, that speaks not so much to luck as the good-heartedness of people in the area.
Linda O'Connor - at her son Evan O'Connor's farm west of Harmony, which received a lot of damage - said around 100 volunteers showed up right away to help. A donation of food came from Preston Foods for those volunteers, while Harmony Foods sent some people out to work. Kingsley Mercantile of Harmony brought chainsaws to help cut up downed trees. And Ron Scheevel of rural Preston showed up with his construction equipment.
That's just a small example of all the help offered to those whose lives and landscapes were altered drastically in the tornado's path of destruction.
Damage along 30
Jensen reported some of the worst damage occurred along Fillmore County 30 west of Granger, a gravel road, at the farms of neighbors Ben Phillips and Mark Hebrink. Between the two farms a dozen outbuildings were lost including barns, sheds, grain bins, a corncrib, a silo and a well house. The twister carried chunks of metal to fields a mile or more away.
Hebrink said no one was at home when the tornado struck his farm. It would have been hit first, the westernmost of the two farms. The home sustained little damage. Roofs were partially ripped off two hog confinement buildings. A third, older building had part of the roof removed while part had fallen in. All hogs were alive and expected to be moved off the farm to another location on Monday.
Ben Phillips, who had just celebrated his 80th birthday last week, was home alone since his wife was gone that afternoon. Daughter Sandy Marzolf of Preston, surveying the aftermath of the tornado, said her father had been very happy and laughed at his birthday about making it through many tough things in life, including the Korean War. Now a tornado can be added to the list.
He was in the attached garage at his home as the twister approached, checking over items. When the glass was sucked out of an outside entry door, Marzolf said he tried to open a second door to return into the house, but couldn't open it due to the suction of the storm. He somehow managed to stay safe.
Fillmore County highway workers and other volunteers brought dozers and skid steer loaders to the site to help cut up and clear downed pines lining Co. 30, which had closed the road. Amish families living in the area also were helping with the cleanup.
The tornado winds also hit a few farms along Fillmore Co. 5, which runs from Highway 44 south to Granger. At the Tyler and Nicole Johnson farm, Tyler's father, Kevin, surveyed equipment still standing in a large shed that no longer had a roof. Trees were toppled. The roof of the home received some damage. The garage door appeared to be opened up a foot from the ground, but the bottom panel was damaged. A window also was broken in the garage.
They noted people were stopping by to offer help. Proving that it comes in many forms, someone brought water, while another brought chocolate - a simple, sweet treat to perhaps help provide a better attitude in dealing with the storm's consequences.
How quickly things change
The brut force of the storm struck again at the junction of Fillmore Co. 17 and Highway 44, toppling part of a tall bin and dryer structure at Love's grain bins and spreading metal parts all over a field and into a windbreak of trees to the east.
The trees, right next to the home of Evan and Kisa O'Connor, had provided a windbreak. On Sunday the winds did the breaking. Many of the pines were split off at half to three-quarters of their heights.
Visited at dusk on Sunday, Linda O'Connor of rural Preston was at her son's home watching the cleanup and providing support.
"You wouldn't have believed how it looked," she stated. Many of the trees littering the yard already had been moved and were lighting up a burn pile.
She also said just 20 minutes or so before the tornado bore down a birthday party for the couple's 1- and 4-year-old sons, a belated Easter egg hunt and other activities had brought families and cousins together at this same home. O'Connor shuddered to think what might have happened had they all still been there.
The family went to the basement for protection. While the winds were terrifying and upper windows broke out, Kisa told a TV station their 1-year-old slept right through the twister.
Linda O'Connor couldn't thank everyone enough for all their help... and that the family was lucky enough to stay safe.
On the Mill Road
The tornado continued to wreak havoc as it made its way east onto what many locals call "The Mill Road," the gravel road running west from Harmony by the Kwik Trip.
Here one could see more debris littering fields and pastures and downed buildings.
Dr. Andy and Nancy Overby were not home at the time of the storm, but were out of town visiting their daughter. A friend called them and alerted them to the fact that their farm had been hit, but their home and garage remained standing.
Volunteers had already started to clean up their property by the time they had arrived home to find a corncrib, pull barn and hay shed completely destroyed. Another building, a workshop, had been lifted off its foundation.
Nancy said her favorite building, a small garden shed, was found lying on its back. "But it's salvageable and we'll get it back in the garden," she added.
Morem's Electric and Tri-County were already on site restoring power to the house.
"There were lots of people to help," Nancy added during a phone interview Tuesday morning. "We've already gotten most of the trees cleaned up and the hay covered." Others have brought food for volunteers and for their family.
Nancy said that she and Andy are now taking a look at the big picture to see where they will go from here and how they will deal with the out buildings.
"The big part of this is that nobody lost their home," Nancy stated. "We all still have a place to call home."
On Highway 52
The tornado also caused extensive damage to a hog building and silos on the Bill Kiehne family property just a half-mile north of town on Highway 52.
Trees were twisted and broken, silos crumbled and the tin on one building was peeled back. The roof of another building, which housed hundreds of hogs, was completely taken and strewn over the neighboring fields. The hogs inside, however, remained unhurt.
Volunteers arrived within minutes following the storm, armed with chainsaws to help the Kiehnes clean up the property.
Eastern part of county
Before passing into Houston County in the greater Choice village area, the supercell storm apparently touched down one final time in Fillmore County at the Amish farmstead of Jacob Swartzentruber, located on Fillmore Co. 12 around 1.5 miles west of its junction with Highway 43.
Numerous pine trees were snapped off and blown down in the yard. Swartzentruber said all the support poles but one on his home's west-facing front porch went missing in the storm. He thought the roof might have lifted a bit for that to occur. Also, a shed was blown away from the manure spreader it had formerly housed.
His family did not suffer any injuries. Swartzentruber said he'd grown up on the farm and lived there now three years with his wife and their baby, but had never seen such destruction there.
A small mud and rockslide blocked Highway 43 briefly on a hill south of Choice. Members of the Mabel Fire Department cleared it.
While the word "lucky" may not be the first to pop into one's mind when hearing that a community was hit by a tornado, it does begin to fit when one hears the stories of how volunteers stepped in to help and how homes were spared.