A year ago, the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma had issued a moderate risk for severe weather for the northern plains, which also included the Fargo-Moorhead metro area. They felt there was a risk for some tornadoes and definitely damaging winds and large hail. They were accurate that day as at least three tornadoes came through the cities of Fargo and West Fargo.
The day started out cloudy and cool due to thunderstorms that had come through during the overnight hours. Temperatures were struggling to hit 70 degrees that day since the sun was not able to shine through the clouds. It was beginning to look like the Storm Prediction Center’s convective outlook for the day was way off. During the mid-to-late afternoon hours, clouds began to thin and break up, allowing sun to come through. The temperature soared quickly, jumping nearly 20 degrees in under an hour. It was enough to tip the scales and break the cap that was inhibiting thunderstorm development. About 4pm that day, the Storm Prediction Center issued a tornado watch for portions of eastern North Dakota, west-central Minnesota, and northeastern South Dakota. Storms were beginning to form in South Dakota moving to the north. The storms slowly moved north into North Dakota about 6:30 that evening. When they joined with two lone supercells in Richland County, the storm movement sped up to speeds over 50mph. It would speed through Fargo, producing tornadoes, hail, and heavy rain.
It would take almost a month for the National Weather Service’s investigative team to determine it was indeed at least three tornadoes that went through Fargo that night. They stated an EF2 tornado went through West Fargo and two EF1 tornadoes went through Fargo. “It was surprising that the winds hit with such force that they did,” stated Hutch Johnson, chief meteorologist with Valley News Live. “When you have a severe thunderstorm, the vast majority of severe thunderstorms that we see moving towards Fargo on the radar by the time they get to Fargo the core of the strongest activity may have weakened, the core of the strongest activity may have slid just north or south of town. We just don’t hear about the reports. It’s the fact that that storm took direct aim on the main population of Fargo-Moorhead.”
I was an active storm chaser that day and will forever remember my experience that day. I monitored conditions from my mother’s, waiting to determine when to leave to head out into the field. The models kept saying tornado potential was rising, despite the fact it was cloudy and cool. When the clouds began to break up and the temperature rose nearly 20 degrees in an hour, I knew it was time to start getting ready to hit the road. Once the tornado watch was issued, I packed up everything and called up a friend of mine who was interested in going on a storm chase. I went to pick her up in Dilworth and we headed out towards West Fargo. Reed Timmer, severe meteorologist most known for being on the show “Stormchasers” and his Dominator tornado intercept vehicle, was parked out by the Urban Plains Center monitoring the weather. My friend and I stopped to watch for a bit. Reed headed north towards Grand Forks while my friend and I stopped at the Flying J to fill up my gas tank. We chose to head south to intercept the storms coming up from South Dakota.
We took the Catherine exit off I-29 and parked on the side of the road just off the side ramp. I looked at the radar and got out to monitor the skies. After a little bit, I noticed the storm was moving at a quicker speed than what radar appeared as I began to see lightning and hear thunder. I got some photos taken of the cloud structure before jumping back into the truck. A few minutes later I heard an ominous roar, almost like a distant freight train. Remembering what people would say about how a tornado sounded, I told my friend we were getting out of there. Before I could get back onto interstate, a downpour started. I was concerned because with how heavy the rain was, it meant the tornado was rain-wrapped (which means it is obscured by rain, making it harder to find). We raced back to Fargo, dealing with near zero visibility due to the downpour and making sure I didn’t lose my windshield from hail hitting it. I still was unsure where the tornado was, until I begun to see sparks of light off to my west. It was then when I knew where the tornado was, because the sparks of light was the tornado taking out power poles and transformers. I phoned the tornado into the 911 dispatch center to put the town on alert to a tornado heading for town. I called my mom to make sure she and my aunt got to safety while my friend was calling her family to take shelter as all of them live in mobile homes.
When we got back to town, the storm was hitting Fargo with all its might. We tried to seek shelter but businesses had locked their doors and we didn’t have time to go door to door. We got back into my chase truck and I was starting it when my friend interrupted me and pointed something out, going “Is that a tornado?” I looked up and sure enough about 50 yards in front of us was a tornado heading straight for us. There was no time to react so I threw on my emergency brake and slammed on the brake pedal to make sure we didn’t spin. The truck rocked pretty good. I would later find out I had been impacted by an EF1 tornado.
After the storm subsided in town, I headed for my mom’s to make sure she was ok. A ton of large tree branches and debris were in the middle of her street. It looked like a tornado had come through. My mom, aunt, and a friend of mine with his girlfriend and kids were in the basement when I showed up. We waited downstairs until the storm was north of town. Once I knew everyone was ok and the coast was clear, my chase partner and I started to leave. With the road badly littered with debris and large tree branches, we begun to help clear out the street with the help of some other neighbors. After getting the street cleared, we took the roundabout way to her place so we could survey the damage. There was some pretty good damage done in areas of West Fargo. The stop light at the corner of 45th St and 13th Ave S was bent in a 45 degree angle. Reports were coming in that the WDAY transmission towers had suffered severe damage. There was some minor damage through downtown Fargo, some more along the river, and some branches and broken railroad crossing brackets in Moorhead. Most of town was without power.
Many citizens will remember that Memorial Day. As a storm chaser that chased the storm that night, I will never forget the fear that overwhelmed me, first when I heard a tornado but was unsure where it was in the downpour and then again later when we were struck by one of the tornadoes. I will never forget the tornado damage that I saw around town.