One tornado confirmed in southern Minn. severe storm

The National Weather Service is assessing storm damage from Wednesday night's severe weather, after scattered reports of possible tornadoes and hurricane-force straight-line winds. At least one tornado is confirmed to have hit Minnesota, in southeast Lewiston, about 40 miles east of Rochester. This is the state’s first December tornado on record.

Residents in hard-hit areas were also working on determining damage from high winds that swirled through the southern part of the state, leaving a trail of destruction.

The Rochester Post Bulletin reported a 65-year-old man was killed Wednesday when a tree fell on him and his truck. The man, Keith Alan Dickman, was outside smoking a cigarette when he was killed, the newspaper reported.

Meteorologists remained astonished by the late-season storm Thursday, saying it could have been much worse in the summer.

“A historic, record-breaking system, for sure,” said Mike Kurz, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis.

“Things could have been a whole lot worse had it been in the middle of summer with trees leafed out and more susceptible to damage,” Kurz said. “It was bad enough just without that, but for this being in mid-December with these kinds of ingredients, it was just remarkable from a meteorological standpoint."

Tornado confirmed in Lewiston

The National Weather Service in La Crosse, Wis., confirmed two tornadoes struck Wednesday — one just southeast of Lewiston, Minn., and one north of Neillsville, Wis.

An EF-0 rating indicates wind speeds of 65 to 85 mph for the Lewiston tornado.

On Wednesday night, weather spotters had reported "significant" damage to a home about four miles southeast of Lewiston, as well as other buildings damaged along County Highway 25 in the area, just after 8 p.m. Power outages were reported in the city of Lewiston after the storms moved through.

A few minutes later and a few miles farther to the southeast, a semi-truck was reported blown over on Interstate 90 near the State Highway 43/Winona exit.

Hartland hit hard

Weather officials headed to Faribault and to Freeborn County to assess possible tornado damage in the tiny town of Hartland, about 10 miles northwest of Albert Lea. The town was struck by near-hurricane force winds by storms.

Power and cleanup crews were working their way through Hartland Thursday, where the storm damaged a number of historic main street commercial buildings, including a bank. A two-block strip of downtown was littered with debris in the wake of the storm.

Freeborn County emergency manager Rich Hall said power was still out Thursday morning throughout the town as temperatures were steadily dropping. But he said other key utilities, like sanitary sewers, were still online.

A fallen tree outside a damaged house in Hartland.
Caution tape lines a severely damaged building in Hartland on Thursday.
Storm damage in Hartland.

Hall credited early warnings from the National Weather Service with preparing people for the storm and averting any injuries.

Hartland resident Noah Nielson said the small tight-knit community spent Wednesday evening and Thursday morning checking in on each other and cleaning the debris from their yards and properties. 

“We're all doing fine. This is something we probably will never see again during this time of the year, and we'll get through it together. Right now, it's just unbelievable,’’ Nielson said.

Photographer Tim Evans said damage is spotty in the town.

“Fortunately, most of the town is OK … The bank that is essentially totaled. There is a house that was very badly damaged,’’ he said. “I think the garage from across the street must have been struck and was essentially thrown into the living room of that house.”

Power outages reported in storm’s swath

Police in Stanley, Wis., 30 miles northeast of Eau Claire, posted photos of damaged buildings, blocked roads, and power poles snapped in the middle and hanging by their wires.

No injuries were reported.  

Widespread power outages stretched from Sioux Falls, S.D., to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Xcel Energy reported about 8,000 of customers were still without power by 9 a.m. Thursday as crews continued to work on efforts to restore power.

At its height, Xcel Energy said nearly 90,000 of its customers in Minnesota lost power for at least part of Wednesday night. The company said it had fielded more than 450 employees and contractors to work on getting power back.

The utility continued warning people to be aware of downed lines, and to stay away from power equipment and lines.

Other utility companies across the region responded to large power outages from Wednesday night's storms.

As of 7 a.m. Thursday, People's Energy Cooperative reported nearly 3,800 homes and businesses without power in its southeast Minnesota service area — with the largest outage in the Stewartville area south of Rochester.

Austin Utilities on Wednesday evening reported a "whole town outage" for the southern Minnesota city of about 26,000 people in the immediate wake of the storms. Power was restored by late Wednesday night.

The wind damage also extended into northern Minnesota, where Minnesota Power reported nearly 1,000 outages in the wake of the storm, although they had cut that number significantly by Thursday morning.

Nosediving temperatures send vehicles sliding

Icy overnight conditions left the Minnesota State Patrol busy. Troopers responded to 121 crashes, with one fatality and one serious injury. Troopers also attended to several jack-knifed semi-tractor trailers and another 49 spin-outs and vehicles off the road.

The weather service said there were also funnel clouds reported near La Crescent and Harmony, and scattered reports of winds that topped 80 mph in southeastern Minnesota. The funnel clouds may be the latest ever recorded in Minnesota — surpassing the previous mid-November record for the latest in the year for a tornado in the state.

Kurz said radar indicated some possible tornadoes Wednesday night, but because of the darkness it was difficult for anyone on the ground to see what was happening. 

He added that reports of straight-line winds were remarkable with the area reporting the most hurricane-force wind gusts (topping 75 mph) since 2004. That included a 78-mile-an-hour wind gust recorded by instruments in Rochester. A handful of public reports from southeastern Minnesota had gusts topping 80 mph. 

The unusual storms cut a swath through the greater Midwest Wednesday.

The National Storm Prediction Center said there were at least 55 such reports, exceeding even the devastating derecho storm that struck the central U.S. in 2020. A derecho is a line of straight-lined-wind storms that accompany fast-moving severe thunderstorms.

The center had preliminary reports of possible tornadoes in Nebraska and Iowa Wednesday evening as well.

“It’s just unheard of to be surpassing some of those large, intense, summer thunderstorm complexes — to be surpassing that in December is just remarkable,” Kurz said. 

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