By Brad Mosher
An EF-1 tornado hit Mott Friday evening, destroying several buildings, trailers, and the 4H building at the Hettinger County Fair.
Witnesses credit quick action by the Hettinger County Sheriffs Department and fair personnel and an evacuation to the county courthouse helped to prevent casualties when the tornado demolished the fairgrounds building just east of the city. A class reunion at the nearby golf course was also evacuated.
The tornado was an EF-1 according to the National Weather Service’s Warning Coordination Meteorologist John Paul Martin after he examined the damage Saturday. Martin, based in the Bismarck office, explained that the tornado went through the northeast area of the city for about 2.85 miles. It had winds of 105 miles per hour and lasted for about eight minutes after touching down at approximately 9:25 p.m. Friday near 70th Street SW, north of the city.
According to the National Weeather Service, wind gusts of 72 mph and 90 mph were measured by a North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network (NDAWN) station, likely associated with the outer edge of the tornadic circulation.
The intense mesocyclone dropped golf ball size hail around Lefor, before heading towards Mott, according to the NWS.
The tornado forced the cancellation of planned events on the final day of the annual fair, including the 5-kilometer race, parade and demolition derby.
Clean up starts early
However, while the community was cleaning up all the fallen trees and debris left by the storm, the fair board was able to set up several events for Saturday including a community meal during the afternoon at the local Knights of Columbus building.
By evening, the fair board had also arranged for the once-canceled final night concert to be moved to downtown. The South Dakota-based band, Broken Spokes, set up in front of the Farmers Union Insurance building and bleachers were moved downtown for seating.
The once-canceled 5-kilometer race was moved to Sunday morning, with organizers accepting entrees next to the concert.
According to Martin, Mott wasn’t just hit by a tornado Friday evening. “I don’t believe all the damage in Mott was caused by the tornado. It was caused by high winds outside the tornado area. They had both (tornado and high winds). In Skywarn training, we call that the rear flank downdraft. So, there is wind damage in Mott and tornado damage. There were some storm that came through after the tornado and I have been told there were some high winds then. It is nearly impossible to tell which storm caused what damage. They don’t leave an identifying mark,” he said.
“The tornado clipped through the eastern edge of town,” he said, noting the way that it bent the flagpole in the cemetery, destroyed a camper trailer along Highway 8, bent a Cenex sign completely over, ripped the roof off a Mott Equity Lumber building, and crushed grain bins on its way to the fairgrounds. He said it followed along Highway 8 before cutting east along Highway 21 and toward the fairgrounds.
Along its wake, the storage building behind the car wash on First Street next to Highway 8 lost about three-quarters of its roof, a garage was damage and a trailer was left at an angle on one side of Highway 21 going east. On the north side, the damage was more pronounces.
The entire weekend was rough on Hettinger County and neighboring areas. On Sunday night, there were reports of winds of up to 77 miles per hour as a severe thunderstorm rolled across western North Dakota through Hettinger, Slope, Stark, Billings and Dunn counties.
On Saturday night, Hettinger County again was hit with high winds and rain.
When the tornado warning siren went off Friday, Deb Marthaller was inside The Playhouse Theater in downtown Mott, partway through the movie “Rocketman.”
“When the siren went off, we stopped the movie. There were only a couple of people in the theater, one who lived downtown and a couple from Carson. They both decided to go home. We went to the basement behind the screen,” Marthaller said, adding they could hear the wind and crashing sounds outside.
The Playhouse survived the high winds and the storm, the theater manager said.
Also one downtown building lost its brick, falling out onto the sidewalk and the street. Nearby, Gunners restaurant was damaged on the roof and debris was found in the pools, forcing workers to try to get the two pools clean of debris.
At the pool, the blue privacy cover was blown down but the rest of the pool seemed to come out of the Friday night storms intact.
“We are just trying to get cleaned up. We fared pretty well except for the debri and the pumps are not running,” said Kris Brunelle early Saturday morning. “There a lot of trees and whatnot lying around.”
Looking out across the field used as a frisbee golf course and a volleyball court, the storm left its mark. “The washway is full. We have go some trees down.” Looking at volleyball area flooded by the storms, Brunelle joked that it “might be our pool for today.
“But overall, it wasn’t bad. Nobody was hurt,” she added.
One house on Wisconsin survived two fallen trees in the front yard with just minimal damage to the front. “It is in estate now,” said Lori Eggers. “What I checked first was that it didn’t rip up the river water line over there, she said, pointing to the side of the house. “All the way up Wisconsin there are a lot of trees down. All the way up to the north end, there is damage. It is just like it followed a path.”
Across the street, Jack Griffin’s home got hit by two trees. One, collapsed on the front of the house and damage one corner of the building with the branches covering his carport.
His neighbor’s tree landed on the back side of the house where one of the bedrooms is on the second floor.
In addition, the tree covered an outer roof over the rear patio.
Saturday morning, Griffin was reviewing the damage when his friends and neighbors stopped by to help.
Dwayne Olson used lopping shears to start trimming back the tree branches covering the carport. Minutes later, Dean Wehri and family members stopped by Griffin house with a power saw and went on top of the carport to cut the tree back branch by branch.
With power out in the city for part of Saturday, the local Cenex station’s cold drinks and hot cooked food made it a popular stop for families and people working on cleaning up the mess left behind.
The station survived, but the tall sign showing the gas prices was flattened by the tornado, which also took the roof off one of the buildings behind the station.
One Mott resident described the event as “all heck broke loose” in an interview with a television reporter Saturday morning.
Geno Sloane told the reporter she was watching television when they broke into television programming with a warning that a storm cell was approaching Mott.
“My son called me and told me to look outside. There are a lot of black clouds to the north … you have got to get to the basement.”
She told the reporter that she went down to the basement and turned on the the television there before the power went off. “Then all heck broke loose,” she said, excusing herself for using a different four-letter word.
She added that she could hear the rain and listened to her hand-cranked radio so she could continue to hear updates.
It wasn’t until morning that she learned the impact it had on the community.
The Enhanced Fujita scale starts with a rating of zero with winds between 65 to 85 miles per hour.
An EF-1 tornado (moderate), like the one in Mott, ranges from 86 mph up to 110 miles per hour, putting the Mott tornado just six miles per hour short of being an EF-2 (significant) tornado.
EF-2 tornadoes go from 111 mph winds up to 135 mph.
The clean up showed the type of community Mott is, according to Marthaller.
It was a town effort to sort of get back to normal in Mott, she added, noting that there was a veritable army of small bobcat equipment working around town to clear streets and clean up the town.