N.D. town cleans up after tornado leaves mark

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - It was supposed to be the first day of school. Instead, students spent Monday helping their families pick up debris and comprehending the damage left by a tornado the night before. Hardly a home or business was spared from at le...

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - It was supposed to be the first day of school.

Instead, students spent Monday helping their families pick up debris and comprehending the damage left by a tornado the night before.

Hardly a home or business was spared from at least some damage by the tornado that left one dead and 18 injured.

The National Weather Service, on scene investigating Monday, said the tornado was an F-3, possibly an F-4, and up to eight-tenths of a mile wide, said meteorologist Greg Gust.

Officials had not assessed all the damage Monday, but said destruction to the school alone would surpass $1 million.


Shattered glass and broken ceiling tiles littered the school cafeteria floor.

Rain fell from a hole in the roof of the four-year-old gymnasium.

Superintendent Kevin Coles said the elementary side of the K-12 school was hit the worst, with four or five classrooms totaled.

"For school people, it's been emotional," Coles said.

Coles, previously the high school principal in Hillsboro, was starting his first school year in Northwood on Monday.

"This was supposed to be my first day with kids, and this is not what I thought I'd be doing," Coles said.

Classes are canceled this week to give students and staff time to take care of their personal situations, he said.

Getting those 250 students into classrooms is a priority, and officials are exploring options with neighboring school districts, Coles said.


Ninth-grader Michael Lyste said he was sad not to be in school.

"If I knew this was going to happen, I would have rather went to school," he said.

Law enforcement sealed off Northwood and only let residents enter.

Grand Forks County Sheriff Dan Hill said the precaution was needed because the town had vulnerable structures, downed power lines and debris on the roads.

"Safety is the No. 1 priority right now," Hill said.

Gov. John Hoeven and other state officials toured the damage and met with storm victims Monday.

"Unless you see it, it's unbelievable," Hoeven said.

Hoeven issued an emergency declaration and mobilized state resources to assist with recovery.


State officials were working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get a presidential disaster declaration.

Hoeven said the impact the tornado will have on Northwood is on par with the damage Grand Forks suffered after the 1997 flood.

Nearly 100 members of the National Guard were expected to be on site Monday night to help with security and cleanup.

The Red Cross and the Salvation Army were coordinating temporary housing shelters at Community Bible Church in Northwood and at nearby Turtle River State Park, Hoeven said.

Power in the city is out and will not be restored for at least two more days, said Don Offerdahl, executive director of the North Dakota State Electrical Board.

A number of facilities, including the nursing home and hospital, have backup generators, officials said.

Drinking water in town was evaluated and found to be safe.

The weather service estimates wind speeds ranged from 150 mph to 170 mph, Gust said.


The tornado touched down about one mile southwest of Northwood, he said.

What was amazing about the tornado was its width - up to eight-tenths of a mile, Gust said. That makes it as wide, possibly wider, as the deadly 1957 tornado that hit Fargo, but less intense, he said.

Everything in Northwood but the extreme northwest corner and southern edge was hit by tornado, he said.

Some of the first signs of tornado damage from the east of Northwood are 15 to 20 crumpled cars tossed in the fields.

Mayor Richard Johnson said those cars were from his business, Krabbenhoft Chevrolet Pontiac-Buick.

"It's like when you take a beverage can and you just crush it," Johnson said.

Nearly all the trees in the city were either sliced or uprooted. Mangled metal hung in trees and from power lines.

The tornado left a gaping hole in the front of the downtown museum where a large window should be, an old clock smashed on the sidewalk below.


The roof of a new Supervalu store was ripped off and insulation covered the ground like a blanket of dirty snow.

The tornado pushed train cars off the track and damaged the local grain elevators.

The Kringlie law office on Main Street had shattered windows and yellow insulation hanging from the ceiling, but law books remained on their shelves.

Below, a Main Street barber pole rested on the sidewalk.

Two mobile home parks were devastated, including the western one where Larry Weisz died. Weisz, 57, was killed after he was pinned between the base of a mobile home and a tree, officials said.

His neighbor Riley Pilipanko was out storm-chasing when the tornado destroyed his double-wide trailer.

Pilipanko didn't realize the extent of the damage until he came back Monday morning.

"I was in tears for a while," Pilipanko said. "But the main part of it is I'm alive. You can always replace buildings."


The cleanup effort was well under way Monday. At noon, trucks were already hauling away trees and debris.

People were either out in their yards working or walking around town to see the damage.

As it rained on and off Monday, residents also worked to cover windows and roofs to prevent further damage.

Despite the destruction, spirits remained strong.

At Larry Higdem's house, friends and family stopped to erect a downed flagpole and found an American flag from a neighbor's house.

"We're all patriotic," said his brother Tim Higdem. "We figured we'd get the flag up and it would help us work."

Tips for Northwood residents

- North Dakota Insurance Commissioner Jim Poolman urges residents to photograph and document damage, as well as money and time spent cleaning up, to speed up the claim process. For questions about insurance claims, call his office at (800) 247-0560.

- Qwest is offering free call forwarding to Northwood customers who are unable to return to their homes and businesses. Call (800) 573-1311.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Amy Dalrymple at (701) 241-5590

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