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Occupants of three Lakeshore households survive EF3 tornado

A strong EF3 tornado that touched down about a mile east of Bowbells Thursday night impacted three households in Burke and Ward counties on both sides of the Lakeshore crossing, with nearly complete destruction of the Dennis Bauer farm and severe damage to the Tim and Colette Bryan farm on the west side of the Des Lacs Lake and to the Ronnie Brekhus house and yard, occupied by Gary Egeberg and Dawn Matthews, on the east side of the lake.

8/18/10 (Wed)

Dennis Bauer's home after an EF3 tornado struck his property along
U.S. Highway 52 east of Bowbells about 9:40 pm Thursday.  The storm
stripped the roof and the north and west walls from the house.
The white GMC truck sustained only a few scratches, however, and Bauer
was able to drive it after the other wreckage was removed.
See more photos here.


Saskatchewan accountant
killed in car tossed by twister


A strong EF3 tornado that touched down about a mile east of Bowbells Thursday night impacted three households in Burke and Ward counties on both sides of the Lakeshore crossing, with nearly complete destruction of the Dennis Bauer farm and severe damage to the Tim and Colette Bryan farm on the west side of the Des Lacs Lake and to the Ronnie Brekhus house and yard, occupied by Gary Egeberg and Dawn Matthews, on the east side of the lake.


The tornado also resulted in one fatality and one injury as a father and son traveling from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, to Misenheimer, North Carolina, drove into the center of the storm.


Passenger Rodger Bulmer, 51, who ran an accounting office in the small town of St. Brieux, Sask., northeast of Saskatoon, was killed as the 2003 Honda four-door sedan he was riding in was picked up by the tornado and rolled over several hundred yards. The vehicle landed on its roof in a ravine over the hill from the south ditch of the highway, east of the Brekhus house.


The driver, 19-year-old Troy Bulmer, got himself out of the car and down to the highway to seek help, where volunteer members of the Bowbells Fire Department discovered him. He was transported first to the Kenmare Community Hospital and then Trinity Hospital in Minot for treatment of injuries, and was discharged Sunday. Troy is listed as a freshman on the roster for the Pfeiffer University men’s golf team in Misenheimer.


Storm track

The thunderstorm itself actually built up over eastern Burke County, beginning with intermittent lightning and thunder about 7:30 pm. “We saw the cloud,” said Tim Bryan, whose farm is located on the south side of U.S. 52, near the intersection of Burke County Road 19 and the highway. “It sat there for hours, and got darker and darker but there was no rain and no wind. You could see it churning and boiling.”


Tim was home with his wife Colette and teenage son William, each one oblivious to the potential weather threat until Colette received a phone call from Tammy Ryberg in Bowbells. “There was blue sky, and we were sitting around in the lawn chairs,” said Colette. “Then Tammy called and said the tornado was four miles from town, coming our direction.” She and William immediately took shelter in the basement.


Tim gestured toward the splintered spruce and pine trees that once lined his front yard and provided protection from the noise of highway traffic. “When we saw the evergreens whipping around, that was our warning,” he said. “You could hear debris hitting the house. The noise was incredible.”


On the other side of the highway, Dennis had only been home a short while, arriving about 9 pm from an afternoon of combining in a field farther north. “There was a funny-looking cloud by the airport, and it took 45 minutes to get four and a half miles,” he said.


He kept watching the sky, although his view was limited by the tree row that lined the western side of his farmstead, until he received a call from Kenmare firefighter and weather spotter Ron Jensen, telling him the tornado was headed for his property. “I went to the basement and hung out there until the fire department came,” he said. “It wasn’t as noisy as I thought it would be, but I could hear a sucking noise through the fireplace.”


On the other side of the lake, Dawn Matthews actually drove through a road block set up at Highway 5 to warn drivers about the storm. “I was coming home from the other side of Tolley,” she said, “and I knew my boyfriend wouldn’t know about the storm.”


She arrived at the house she shares with Gary Egeberg, owned by Ronnie Brekhus. Her father was also visiting at the time. “It seemed like everything was okay,” said Dawn, who grew up in the Washington state and had no experience with severe thunderstorms, much less tornadoes. “I grabbed my camera and was outside taking pictures. Then, at the top of the hill, I could see the funnel, and I knew it was on the ground.”


Dawn described the tornado as spanning the highway and spilling over halfway across the ditches on both sides. “I calmed myself and went in and woke Dad up,” she said. “He goes, ‘Ah, it’s just some wind!’”


She told Gary, who was upstairs at the time, about the coming storm but he didn’t take her seriously either, so she grabbed her computer and cat to head to the basement. “I looked out again, and I couldn’t see anything, it was so dark,” she said, her voice quavering as she recalled the moment. “Then I saw the car. I saw the headlights, then they vanished, then they were spinning.”


She described a vehicle, later discovered to be the Bulmers’ car, as leaving the roadway on the south side, and twisting up and over the hill in a path that carried it southeast just past the house. She marked the path by watching the car’s lights.


At that point, she started yelling at her boyfriend and father to get to safety. Gary listened, and it took both his and Dawn’s strength to tug the door open to the basement. “When Dad felt the house shake, then he decided to join us,” said Dawn. “It sounded like God put a big old Shop-Vac down and was sucking everything up.”


Thursday’s local storm report log from the National Weather Service in Bismarck recorded the first signs of trouble at 8:42 pm, when hail up to an inch and three-quarters in diameter was reported in the Flaxton area. At 9 pm, a brief touchdown of a small tornado was reported two miles west of Bowbells, with a second touchdown coming three minutes later one mile west of town.


The first NWS report of the larger, wedge tornado came at 9:30 pm, one mile east of Bowbells, near U.S. Highway 52. Hail up to an inch in diameter was called in at 9:31 pm, but law enforcement and trained spotters continued to make reports about the twister for the next 10 minutes, describing it as increasing in intensity and sitting between one and two miles east of Bowbells.


The final recorded appearance of the tornado came at 9:54 pm with the twister sighted on the ground north of Kenmare.


According to Tom Roering of the Bowbells Fire Department, the warning sirens were sounded three times in town. In Kenmare, members of the fire department used the warning sirens and a recorded announcement broadcast throughout the community to advise residents of the approaching storm.


Damage assessment

The first thing Dennis Bauer heard after the tornado passed was the sound of Bowbells firefighters pounding on one of the few doors still standing at his house. During the storm, a jacket had drifted down the stairs from its rack above the basement staircase. “I grabbed it and ran out into the rain,” he said. “It was dark and hard to see much, but I saw all the outbuildings were gone. I thought some of the other buildings would be safer.”


Tim Bryan walked across the highway, covered with fallout from the storm, to see his neighbor. “When I came outside, one of his propane tanks was screaming,” Tim said. “The top had been sheared off and it was like a siren. That was making more noise than anything.”


With the smell of propane hanging in the air and most of his house missing, Dennis accepted a ride from the Bowbells firefighters to Kenmare, where he planned to stay with his parents. On the way down U.S. 52, however, they discovered Troy Bulmer walking along the highway seeking help for his father. “I farm that area,” said Dennis, “so we went looking for the car. You couldn’t see it from the road.”


Once the general location of the Bulmer vehicle was determined and emergency personnel contacted, including the Bowbells Ambulance Service, Bowbells firefighters continued into Kenmare, delivering Troy to the Kenmare hospital and Dennis to his parents’ home.


On the east side of the Lakeshore crossing, Dawn and Gary left their basement to find a soggy mess. The house was intact, but the back patio doors were shattered and most of the contents of the first floor sucked outdoors. “The back room is in the backyard,” Dawn said, shaking her head at a dresser that was waiting to be moved upstairs. “The drawers are open and my clothes are gone.”


She, her father and Gary went to a friend’s house for a while, then decided to return home in the early morning hours. Water and mud splattered the inside walls on both levels, having entered through windows broken in the storm. “We had grass upstairs on the inside walls,” she said.


She and Gary stripped the soggy sheets, flipped the mattress to the dry side, found clean bedding and managed to get a couple hours of sleep before daylight revealed the true scope of the storm.


Dawn stood in her yard and pointed out the losses. Two campers had been parked on the property, with one picked up by the tornado and tossed into the lake on the north side of the highway. Pieces of the second one were found south and east of the house. “My dad didn’t even realize his camper was gone until this morning,” she said.


Her voice broke as she talked about how much she enjoyed the house, now scarred by shattered windows, missing shingles and damaged siding. “I’ve done so much work out here,” she said. “I’ve worked on the wiring, the foundation, the roof, insulation, you name it.”


On the other side of the lake, Dennis listed his losses, including a pole barn, heated shop, cold storage shop, separate garage, and 21 grain bins, two of which were still in the general farmyard area, twisted and mangled. The roof of his house and two exterior walls were stripped away by the storm, and debris was wrapped around a tractor. “I can’t believe how much it moved some of the equipment around,” he said.


His John Deere 50-foot air seeder, one of the largest models manufactured, showed the most conspicuous signs of the storm’s power, with a cultivator and an anhydrous tank wrapped around it, and the whole set-up moved 100 yards southeast of where it had been parked in the yard. The weight of that equipment alone was estimated at 57,000 to 60,000 pounds. “That’s the heaviest air drill on the market,” said Don Gregoire, who arrived early Friday morning with several other friends and their trailers. “The tornado just rolled it around like a Tinker Toy.”


Some items from Dennis’s yard were located a mile and more east of his property. “I haven’t seen it all yet,” he said.


The yard at Tim and Colette Bryan’s farmyard was littered with branches of all sizes, numerous downed trees, and several huge sheets of metal from Dennis’s grain bins and quonset, not to mention the roof of his house, the shingles ripped away by the storm and various smaller items from his house and shops.


To their amazement, however, actual damage to their own buildings, directly across the road from Dennis’s place, was minimal. One window was broken in the garage, their communications tower was bent in half, and a grain bin made over into a garden shed was moved about two-thirds of the way off its concrete floor.


“We had two pieces of debris,” said Colette. She held up the trim from the southwest corner of the house, now twisted and bent, and an 18-inch piece of siding ripped from the northwest side.


The lawn furniture and several flower pots had tipped and rolled from their usual spots, but most of those were back in their usual places by Monday morning. Colette kept searching for decorative planters set out at the ends of the driveway near the highway after she found a partial rim for one of those.


The Bryans had to deal with a hole made in the roof above their living room, near a bay window, that allowed rainwater to stream down the wall. “But our house is basically intact,” Colette said.


Electrical power went out soon after the storm started, with five poles reported down by Montana-Dakota Utilities crews. They worked to replace the poles on Friday to the two customers affected and had power restored to one of those households by Friday afternoon.


Strange but true

All three households noted odd results from the storm. Despite the fact the storm essentially vacuumed out the first floor of Dawn and Gary’s house, half-filled water glasses sitting on a table near the open patio door did not move.


The north and west walls of Dennis’s home vanished in the tornado, but a mug and several other knick-knacks were perched on a shelf in the living room as they had been for years. Three large tanks, only two of which contained fuel, stood unmoved among the heavier buildings and equipment that were tossed by the storm.


And his white GMC pickup, parked in the attached garage, was marked by only a few scratches. “I’ve got some wheels anyway,” he said.


Some of the oddest sights could be found in the Bryans’ yard, where one small slice of shiny gray metal was driven into the shop door a few inches above the ground and another was spiked in a tree trunk 30 feet above the ground.


A hanging blown glass garden ornament swayed gently from its branch, surrounded on every side by broken tree limbs and boards blown over from Dennis’s house. A large gas grill that Colette could barely move by herself, parked on a concrete pad in a corner of the back patio, was pushed forward about 10 feet, while a small plastic pot blooming with red and blue flowers still hung from a nail directly over the grill’s usual location.


And while the stately cottonwood and ponderosa pine trees that graced the yard for decades looked better suited for firewood after the storm, a weathered and scrawny old apple tree, that Colette has wanted to cut down for years, remained unscathed.


More storm impacts

The tornado left its mark in other ways, too, as it erased groves of trees on both sides of Des Lacs Lake north of the highway. Dave Bolin, Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge manager, said he expected to contact a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service contaminant specialist to deal with the potential of hazardous chemicals in the water, although he didn’t observe any immediate threats to wildlife or people.


He was also making plans for his staff to remove debris from the refuge on both sides of the highway. “We’ll be working with the landowners on that,” he said.


Several items are expected to be submerged in the lake itself.


Frank Rostad, a rancher from the Carpio-Donnybrook area, relocated his herd of 20 dry cows from the refuge grazing unit on the northeast side of the Lakeshore crossing Thursday afternoon. He borrowed a metal loading chute to do the job and moved the cattle to a unit farther north. He actually left the refuge that evening about 9 pm, describing storm clouds both east and west of him as he exited onto U.S. 52.


He returned Friday morning to check his cattle and pick up the loading chute. The spare tire was the only portion of the chute still in the location where he’d used it the previous day, with some sections of the chute scattered across the pasture there and others still unaccounted for. He shook his head over the timing of the storm and the previous location of his cows, which would have been directly in the tornado’s path. “That was the luck of the draw,” he said.


Quick response

The site of the Bryan and Bauer farms was swarming with utility crews, curious onlookers, firefighters, news media and friends come to help clear the mess by early Friday morning. Members of the Burke County Sheriff’s Department continued the traffic control and security vigil begun the previous evening.


Two of the visitors included Todd Hamilton and Ken Simosko, with the National Weather Service in Bismarck. They arrived to observe the storm’s damage and determine the size of the tornado. “We’re gathering the information we need for determining its strength,” Hamilton said. “We’ll compare what we see here to some known quantities of wind damage.”


The two meteorologists took several photos at various locations. “We’ll look at tree damage, structural damage, farm equipment, anything we can relate in these photos,” said Simosko.


“We’re also trying to talk with as many people as we can, trying to get as much information as we can,” added Hamilton.


The two filed their first report Friday evening and rated the tornado between an EF2, with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph, and an EF3, with winds of 136 to 165 mph. However, they also requested the expertise of a NWS Quick Response team, which classified the tornado as a strong EF3 after the members reviewed the data.


“The worst damage found during the survey...corresponds with wind speeds of 155 to 165 mph,” stated the final report, released Monday morning. “The majority of the damage was found to be consistent with EF2 to EF3 winds.”


The final report described an intermittent path for the tornado, beginning with the small, rope-like twisters seen five miles west of Bowbells. The tornado ended eight miles east of Bowbells with the larger, wedge-shaped twister that caused extensive damage in the final three miles of its route, which included a canola field where U.S. 52 turns south in Ward County. The tornado essentially ended close to the Tom Herman residence along U.S. 52, where bundles of canola were seen wrapped around the electrical wires.


The NWS report also estimated the tornado to be 400 yards wide.


Those 400 yards of fury nearly obliterated Dennis Bauer’s life and livelihood, but he managed to salvage his clothes, farm toy collection and business papers from the remains of his house. He looked calm standing among the wreckage, even as friends and relatives offered sympathy for his situation.


“I was very lucky,” he said, echoing sentiments expressed by the Bryan family and Dawn Matthews and Gary Egeberg. He gestured at the scrambled farmyard surrounding him. “To walk away from something like this? There wasn’t a scratch on me.”


The south side of the Tim and Colette Bryan home, directly
across U.S. 52 from Bauer's residence.  A large piece of twisted
sheet metal from one of Bauer's 21 damaged grain bins
hangs from a cottonwood tree in the backyard.
See more photos here.