Tornado touches down near Mott, N.D.; wind damages Hettinger County farms

MOTT -- Gayle Olson held onto his family while they listened to the indescribable sounds of a tornado tearing their home apart. Those three long minutes starting at 8:10 p.m. Tuesday taught him everything he needs to know about how dear life real...

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From left, Gayle Olson, his wife Jodi, daughter Caitlyn, granddaughter Ava and Josh Qualls were thankful to be alive and uninjured Wednesday after a tornado destroyed the Olsons' home just after 8 p.m. Tuesday. Photo by Lauren Donovan / Bismarck Tribune

MOTT - Gayle Olson held onto his family while they listened to the indescribable sounds of a tornado tearing their home apart.

Those three long minutes starting at 8:10 p.m. Tuesday taught him everything he needs to know about how dear life really is.

The Olson home, about 5 miles southwest of Mott, was destroyed by an EF1 tornado with a viciously spinning wind of 105 mph, according to the National Weather Service investigation team that was at the scene Wednesday morning.

The tornado was on the family so fast - twisting in the trees 240 yards away one minute and roaring down their driveway the next - they just had time to hurl themselves face down into the hallway of the house.

Gayle Olson said he held his arms across his wife, daughter and baby granddaughter with such force he feared he’d leave bruises and he heard the baby squeak in protest, but there was no way he was going to let up while the winds, rain and hail were inside the house.


“I was scared. I knew the house was leaving, but I didn’t know how bad,” Gayle Olson said. “I could feel the power and I was worried that we were going to lift off. I kept saying, `Nobody moves. Do not move.’”

His wife, Jodi Olson, started praying “Our Father,” hoping the words “thy will be done” wouldn’t mean the worst. On Wednesday, while still in shock at her mother’s home in Mott, she was thankful that no one was injured and all their lives were spared.

“I just didn’t want us to go up into the air,” Jodi Olson remembers thinking. “I’m so thankful we’re all alive.”

Caitlyn Olson held her 7-month-old baby, Ava, under her shirt to prevent her from choking on the blizzard of insulation circling through the house.

“I had a few seconds to look up, and I could see a big hole where the roof was gone,” she said.

When the tornado passed, the insulation covered everything, hair and clothing and packed in a solid mass behind their glasses. The garage had disappeared, scattered to the winds a mile to the northeast. The house was opened to the sky overhead. Inside was a scene of damage and destruction.

The Olsons packed up what they could gather Wednesday morning and left for a long-planned family vacation in celebration of Jodi Olson’s mother’s 80th birthday. It seemed odd to be leaving, but, as Jodi Olson said, there wasn’t much to do immediately; the damage had already been done.

They’d only lived on this rural hillside for a year and loved the quiet, the crops growing up to their property and the wildlife. If they rebuild, “The first thing is a bomb shelter,” Jodi Olson said. This house had no basement, but was secured to the floor beam with 13 tie-downs on either side.


The tornado also did some damage to a nearby farmstead belonging to Lynn Miller and his son, Dominic Miller. They lost trees, power and corrals and will need new shingles, siding and a general cleanup around the place.

They were feeling lucky though, if luck is knowing how much worse it could have been.

“We were fortunate. We lost little,” Lynn Miller said.

John Paul Martin, warning coordinator and meteorologist for the Bismarck-based National Weather Service, said he classified the tornado on the high end of the EF1 scale, which measures tornado severity on a scale of zero through five.

He said the wind speed of 105 mph alone is damaging, but gains its power and destructive potency from spinning within such a tight area.

Martin said North Dakota normally experiences its tornado season over a six-week window up until August, but such incidents have occurred as early as March and as late as November here. He said the tornado that struck the Olsons started off to the west and remained off the ground, damaging structures and trees at a higher profile. He said he and his team would continue to measure the side-to-side extent of the twister’s path. 

Damages widespread

Rob Larson, a Hettinger County commissioner, said a portion of his pole barn’s roof was blown off by the high winds, though he said the rest of his damage was limited to crops. He said the wind was constantly changing direction as the storm moved through.


“The windsock would go one way and then all of a sudden, it’d go another way,” Larson said.

A half-mile west of Regent, farmer Alan Honeyman said his house had roof damage and hail shattered windows on four of his vehicles. However, he spent much of the morning trying to find ways to patch thousands of holes that had been punched in plastic grain bags by hail stones.

Honeyman said the six 130-foot long white plastic bags he used to store gain “look like swiss cheese.” He reported about .65 of an inch of rain, and mostly egg-sized hail, though he had some baseball-sized hail stones fall as well.

“It wasn’t a very wide streak,” he said of the hail damage.

Despite multiple reports of baseball-sized hail and hail falling for as long as 20 straight minutes all the way from New England to Mott, crop damage in the area was far less than what farmers expected, Hettinger County Extension Agent Duaine Marxen said.

Several farmers reported that while they found some minor hail damage, they expected the crops to recover.

“My durum right by house, it looked like about 30 percent damage,” Honeyman said. “Canola, it roughed that up pretty good too. But it’s still yellow, that’s the main thing.”

Regent reported flash flooding after receiving as much as 3 inches of rain in a short period of time.


Despite the damages, Larson said there was one bright side of the storm.

“We needed the rain,” he said. 

In McKenzie County

Several tornadoes and funnel clouds were spotted in McKenzie County throughout Tuesday night, but no damage was reported by NWS.. Two tornadoes reportedly touched down shortly before 10 p.m.

Jennifer Josephson captured a tornado on video while driving in Watford City.

“It was pretty intense,” Josephson said. “After I watched my own movie, I got goosebumps.”

Strong thunderstorms knocked down power lines and caused outages in Mercer County, where the intake is located on the lake north of Zap. Roughrider Electric Cooperative spokesman Leonard Hibl said high winds damaged a transmission line that feeds power to the intake.

Power was restored to the intake later Wednesday. Hibl said Roughrider had around 20 people working on the issue.


Hibl added that nine power poles in that same area were “slammed over just like you took your hand, brushed across and knocked them right over.”

SWA CEO Mary Massad said it had adequate water in its treated reservoirs and continued to treat water in Dickinson.

SWA serves 33 communities in southwest North Dakota, including Dickinson, and about 6,300 rural farms and ranches through its Southwest Pipeline Project.

Storm related incidents

  • A lightning strike is believed to be the cause of an oil spill in Mountrail County, according to the Oil and Gas Division. About 200 barrels, or 8,400 gallons, of oil were released from a well owned by Bow Petroleum. The spill was contained on the well location, according to a spill report.
  • In Bismarck, firefighters freed three people who were trapped inside a camper after high winds tipped it over. The fire department responded at 12:57 a.m. Wednesday to the north-side Walmart at 1400 Skyline Boulevard and removed the camper’s rear window glass to extricate the people inside. Two were treated at the scene and the third person refused treatment, a news release stated.
  • The Southwest Water Authority on Wednesday asked more than 60,000 people in southwest North Dakota to conserve water following a power outage at its main intake at Lake Sakakawea. 

Bismarck Tribune reporter Lauren Donovan, Dickinson Press managing editor Dustin Monke and Forum News Service reporter Amy Dalrymple all contributed to this report.

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