Police and National Guard soldiers blocked off neighborhoods Friday as city officials organized a cleanup from tornadoes that ripped through the city the night before, part of a turbulent system that fueled twisters across the state and killed at least three people.
Dozens more were injured in Thursday's heavy weather. The National Weather Service collected 36 reports of tornado sightings, with northwestern and southern Minnesota hit hardest. If the sightings are all confirmed, it would exceed the previous state record of 27 in one day, in 1992.
In northwestern Minnesota, a woman was killed in Almora and a gas station owner was killed in Mentor. In southern Minnesota, one person was killed at a farm west of Albert Lea.
Wadena, a town of about 4,300 people that lies 70 miles southeast of Fargo, appeared to suffer the most extensive property damage. The storms destroyed or damaged dozens of homes and other buildings, toppled power lines and left a big chunk of the town without trees. Officials met Friday morning to plan the town's next step.
"First we were outside watching it. Then we went inside and it got really, really nasty," Sara Carpenter, 18, said. Her family's home was badly damaged, and they spent the night at the AmericInn in town. "It's pretty much gone," she said of their house.
In nearby Almora, a town of about 20 people, an elderly woman was killed when a twister wiped out her home. Brittney Schulke of Almora told The Daily Journal of Fergus Falls that her grandmother, Margie Schulke, was killed and that her grandfather, Norman Schulke, suffered two broken shoulders.
In Mentor, about 50 miles southeast of Grand Forks, N.D., the owner of a Cenex station was killed when a tornado struck his store. Wes Michaels' daughter told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that her father was not supposed to work on Thursday, his 58th birthday, but that he went in to check on her because of the storm warnings. She said he ordered her and several customers into the store cooler as the tornado bore down.
"He saved me," Heidi Michaels told the newspaper.
A series of tornadoes hit 40 to 60 rural properties in southern Minnesota's Freeborn County, killing one person at a farm west of Albert Lea, the county's Emergency Management Director Mark Roche said.
Freeborn County administrator John Kluever said eight homes were destroyed near Geneva, but said that number might grow as damage was assessed by daylight. Fourteen people were treated at Albert Lea Medical Center for injuries. Kluever said the storms damaged grain bins, a hog feedlot and a cattle feedlot. About 1,000 hogs and a few dozen cattle were being rounded up Friday, he said.
Still, Freeborn County Sheriff's chief deputy Gene Arnold said the property damage could have been much worse.
"We're very fortunate that it did not hit a high-population area," Arnold said.
Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden said sirens gave plenty of warning in his town, where the National Weather Service said a tornado struck around 5 p.m. Wolden said many people were there for an all-school reunion.
Twenty people were treated for injuries at the Wadena hospital, mostly for bumps and bruises, nursing supervisor Kathy Kleen said. She said many residents were at the hospital's pharmacy first thing Friday to replace prescription drugs they lost in the storm.
Crews worked overnight to control dozens of gas leaks. Wadena's community pool was destroyed, the high school "extremely busted up" and the community center beyond repair, Wolden said.
His wife, Lori Wolden, said houses were "half-gone" and "there's no trees" in the southwest part of the town, which was barricaded after the storm.
Patty Jones was evacuated from her apartment because of a gas leak and walked around Wadena before taking shelter at the local armory.
"It's terrible. It's whacked out. Nothing's left in one part of town," Jones said.
The Red Cross set up a shelter at the local armory, but no one slept there Thursday night, apparently opting instead to stay with family, friends or in local hotels. It was not immediately known how many homes in Wadena were left uninhabitable by the storm.
The Red Cross also set up a shelter in Albert Lea, where about 20 people spent the night.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who activated about 70 National Guard members to help with the response, planned to tour the affected areas later Friday.
State climatologist Greg Spoden said it would take the weather service days to verify tornado reports. He cautioned that reports of the state's biggest outbreak of tornadoes could be overblown because improvements in technology and communications mean more tornadoes are reported now than ever before.
Still, Spoden said, it was "a very, very extensive outbreak."
Associated Press writers Chris Williams in Albert Lea and Gretchen Ehlke in Milwaukee contributed to this report.
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