Storm cleanup continues throughout metroby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio,
Elizabeth Baier, Minnesota Public Radio
North Branch, Minn. — Metro area residents are cleaning up after the severe storms that ripped through the area yesterday afternoon. Funnel clouds were spotted in parts of Minneapolis, Cottage Grove and Chisago and Dakota counties.
The National Weather Service confirmed a tornado hit Hastings Wednesday night, and flattened a 100-yard-long swath of trees. The NWS will be out surveying damage this morning to confirm whether the reported tornadoes touched down in several spots around the Twin Cities.
The Red Cross is caring for two families -- four adults and five children -- left homeless by Wednesday's storm.
"We're assisting them with their immediate needs which may include food, clothing and shelter," Red Cross Media and Government Relations Manager Lynette Nyman said.
One of the families spent the night with friends and the other is at an area hotel, Nyman said.
In all, the Red Cross estimates 40 residences in the Portland Avenue area suffered some sort of structural damage from the storm.
Nyman said the Red Cross will continue to follow up with damage assessment today.
"Sometimes it takes a while for people who need assistance to call," she said.
After wreaking havoc across the Twin Cities, the storm headed north. Residents in the small city of North Branch reported seeing a tornado touch down at a school Wednesday afternoon.
The storm knocked out power, and backed traffic up all along the main street.
The North Branch middle school took the worst hit. Outside the school, big trees lay snapped in half on the grass and the bleachers were tipped over. Everywhere, neighbors milled around snapping pictures.
Custodian Greg Kuchenmeister was still marveling at what he witnessed.
"I always wanted to see a tornado but I didn't want to be in one," he laughed.
Kuchenmeister was working in the school when his brother called to tell him a tornado was headed his way. He ran to the office to warn the rest of the school staff.
"And then all of a sudden it was just one big gust of wind and the doors flew open and I looked down the hall and I saw the ceiling tiles coming down and stuff and I went in and told those guys to take cover," he said. "It was scary and it happened so quick."
Chisago County officials say the school roof suffered damage, but no injuries or fatalities were reported. The National Weather Service has not confirmed that a tornado hit North Branch.
Earlier in the day, tornadoes were also reported near downtown and in south Minneapolis, damaging a church and flooding Interstate 35W.
The Hennepin County Sheriff's office activated the tornado sirens at 2:12pm -- just after residents say they saw a tornado touch down in south-central Minneapolis.
Michelle Neal, who lives on Clinton Avenue, was upset that the sirens didn't go off before the tornado hit. "We dont know - we think it's just a storm, you know, just rain," Neal says. "We don't know that we have a tornado that is sitting on top of us."
Hennepin County Sheriffs' spokeswoman Lisa Kiava says the siren is only activated when there is a funnel cloud or tornado indicated on radar or reported by a trained spotter.
"People are confused about sirens," says Kiava, "the most important thing is if you are in your house, you are not to rely on sirens you are to have a NOAA weather radio and you are also to tune into local media. Sirens are intended for use for people who are outside."
Officials cited the sudden nature of the storm and say it's possible the tornadoes developed too quickly for the tornado sirens to be activated in time.
Minnesota Public Radio's Chief Meteorologist Paul Huttner says it was also difficult to detect the possibility of a tornado because conditions yesterday were unusual for tornado formation.
By Wednesday night, the National Weather Service was still working to confirm tornado reports in Minneapolis.
The weather service did confirm that a tornado touched down in southern Cottage Grove near Highways 61 and 95. Police say the tornado caused damage to fences, a storage shed and other property, but there were no reports of injuries.
About 800 people are still without power this morning, as Xcel Energy crews work to restore power to thousands of customers left in the dark after Wednesday night's storms in the Twin Cities.
"Unless more bad weather rolls through, all those should be back up and running by noon today," Xcel Spokesman Tom Hoen said.
In all, Hoen said there were about 7,300 customers who lost power throughout the metro area. He said the outages were concentrated in the south Minneapolis area near 36th Street, which made it more difficult to move utility trucks around.
"We've got trees in the roads, and trees in the backyards, where it's not really conducive to bringing in a bucket truck and do some work," Hoen said. "So it just takes a little bit longer because of the proximity of the outages."
Anyone still without power should report the outage to Xcel by calling 1-800-895-4999.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
- Morning Edition, 08/20/2009, 6:50 a.m.
Jessica Mador covers the Twin Cities as a member of the MPR News metro reporting team.