On May 11, a storm blew through the state leaving destruction in its path across Aitkin.
Troy Johnson, Aitkin, was working at the Post Office in Aitkin at approximately 4:45 p.m. when he saw the wind swirling debris off the streets and the top windows of the building blew open. The front door also blew open and he could not get it shut again until the storm moved on. The winds tore the POW/MIA flag (another will be ordered and hopefully arrive in time for Memorial Day). “I would say it was a small tornado,” said Johnson. “It was pretty intense and I never heard the sirens go off.”
At the Aitkin County Fairgrounds, the high winds took out several buildings. Street Department Supervisor Lon Nicko said the buildings were mainly display buildings and storage buildings. The fair is scheduled to be held July 6-9 this year. The fair board and others are picking up the pieces, inspecting damage and working to get things cleaned up and said in a Facebook post, “Things might look a little different this year but it will be amazing!”
At The Green House, located at 320 Second St. NE, Aitkin, an employee who wishes to remain anonymous was sweeping the floor in the large greenhouse when the hanging plants and windchimes started swaying uncontrollably with the wind. The wind blew the smaller greenhouse over. When it blew over, it blew into the large greenhouse and caused damage to it as well. “We had just gotten two truckloads of plants, put them all away and had them looking pretty,” said the employee. The employee also said they wondered why there was no siren sounded.
Mike Patnode, owner of Aitkin Pet and Farm Supply, said his business sustained damage as well. A grain elevator near the back of the building toppled into the warehouse and part of the retail area of the store. Patnode took a video of the trees on the property blowing in the wind when they suddenly dropped like dominoes. “I heard a loud noise and a whoosh, the doors flew open and the straw bales were spiraling in the air,” said Monique Lamke, who was working at the store at the time. “Honestly, I think it was a tornado. We had no warning, no nothing.”
“This was crazy! I was at home and heard the screen door blow open; when I went to pull it shut the wind actually took my breath away and I could not pull the door shut,” said Arlene Selander, Aitkin. Other homeowners saw some trees and branches down.
Personally, I was at my desk in the Aitkin Age office when it sounded like a freight train was on top of the building. I went to the window to see what was going on and got there just in time to see the outdoor tables from the Beanery tumble into the street.
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE, DULUTH
Joe Moore from the National Weather Service, Duluth, said, “What happened on Wednesday afternoon in Aitkin was what we call a ‘wake low.’ A wake low is a phenomenon that happens in the area of a decaying thunderstorm caused by a large pressure difference in the air pressure ahead of the storm and behind the storm. They can be extremely difficult to forecast and because the strong winds happen only across a very small area, just detecting them is a challenge because the strongest winds are typical only over a small area.”
According to the NWS, Duluth, the strongest winds in Aitkin appear to have occurred between 4:40 p.m. and 4:50 p.m. Wednesday. At the Aitkin Airport, the automated weather station (owned and maintained by MnDOT) reported a gust of 39 mph at 4:55 p.m. To the west in Brainerd, the automated weather station at the Brainerd Airport (owned and maintained NWS, Duluth) reported a peak gust of 53 mph at 4:10 p.m. At a backyard weather station (privately owned) southwest of Aitkin on Hammal Lake, a gust of 37 mph was reported at 4:39 p.m.
“It is likely the wind gusts that caused the damage in Aitkin were even stronger - we just don’t have enough weather stations to detect when the strong winds only impact a very small area,” said Moore. “Our office was notified about the strong winds by Aitkin County dispatch shortly after the damage occurred and within minutes we issued a short high wind warning for winds of up to 70 mph to alert residents in Aitkin, Carlton and southern St. Louis counties of the possible impending danger. However, outside of the damage in the Aikin area, we did not receive any additional damage reports.”
DAMAGE FROM THE SEVERE WEATHER
Homeowners may have experienced wind and hail damage to their property. This type of damage is typically covered by homeowner’s insurance.
Those who have damage should contact their insurer or agent as soon as possible and document the damage with photos and videos if possible.
People should also keep receipts for costs spent on cleanup, temporary repairs or alternate housing if necessary.
“In recent years, we’ve seen an alarming trend of unscrupulous out-of-state storm chasing contractors who saturate areas that have had recent severe storm activity,” said Insurance Federation of Minnesota President and CEO Aaron Cocking. “These contractors drive up claims costs by filing claims that are much higher-priced than local contractors typically bid or by convincing homeowners they urgently need repair work on property that’s not actually been damaged.”
WEATHER ALERT SIRENS
According to dps.mn.gov, there are many different policies regarding siren activation used by various cities and counties. Some will activate sirens across the entire county for tornado warnings only. Others will activate sirens countywide for tornado warnings and all severe thunderstorm warnings. Some will activate sirens across the entire county for tornado warnings and severe thunderstorms that have winds of at least 70 or 75 mph. Others will activate sirens only for portions of counties. Local officials may also sound the sirens anytime they believe severe weather is a threat, even if there is no warning from the National Weather Service.
Aitkin Fire Chief Brian Pisarek said that the warning sirens will be activated when something has been confirmed in the area. The sirens are controlled by the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Department dispatch and will be set off with severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service, as well as the monthly test on the first Wednesday of the month.
In this particular case, the system moved through before the alert could be activated. Some area residents received an alert on their cellphones after the system had passed through the area.
Photos by: RoxAnne Bouley, Patty Begordis and Kat Robb