Tornado near Watford City raises concerns over camper preparedness
By Amy Dalrymple/ The Forum
WATFORD CITY, N.D. -- Stella Schlosser and her family of five didn’t have a plan for seeking shelter from a tornado in their RV near Watford City.
“When we looked out that window, all you could see was (a) funnel,” said Schlosser, a mother of three. “It was here.”
Kevin directed the family to a structure next door to their camper that has a concrete foundation, and the family, barefoot, ran out and hunkered down beneath it. Schlosser was grateful Tuesday for her husband’s quick thinking.
“Looking around here, I wouldn’t know where to go,” Schlosser said. “I wouldn’t have a clue.”
The danger of being in an RV during a storm was on the minds of many Tuesday in the Oil Patch, where thousands live in campers, trailers and other types of temporary lodging as housing development lags behind population growth. Often, the camps are out in the country, out of range of emergency sirens or solid shelter.
Williams County Emergency Manager Mike Hallesy said the county, which includes the boomtown of Williston, has been reviewing the placement of emergency sirens within the city since it has grown.
But Hallesy said some responsibility also rests on the RV camps.
“It’s somewhat maybe inherent for the camp operators to look into safety notification equipment,” he said, adding the camps can invest in equipment and hook it into the county’s system so any countywide siren also is blared at the camp.
Dunn County’s seat, Manning, doesn’t have a siren because it’s an unincorporated city, said county Emergency Manager Denise Brew. She said she plans to approach the county commission about adding one.
When it comes to emergencies, for Brew, it’s all about having a plan.
She said it’s up to the park operator or the oil company that has housed them at a camp to have a plan in place for notification and evacuation of residents.
“They should be able to tell you, ‘OK if you’re near the city of Killdeer, here’s where you should go and work that out and just go from there,’” she said.
John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Bismarck, advises people to be aware of the potential for bad weather. When a watch is issued, it’s time to seek a permanent shelter, he said.
“The best answer is that everyone have a storm shelter,” Martin said. “But that’s not feasible.”
Liz Leitheiser of Montana lives in an extended-stay motel under construction adjacent to where the tornado struck Monday. She, her grandson and neighbors took shelter in the building’s crawl space Monday night. On Tuesday, she was telling her neighbors who live in RVs about the crawl space for future storms.
“Last night taught me something,” Leitheiser said.
Martin said even waiting until the warning is issued can prove to be too late.
But in the case of Monday’s tornado, residents didn’t have warning.
Severe thunderstorm warnings had been issued since about 4 p.m. for a storm that started in the Sidney, Mont., area, Martin said.
The first indication officials received of a tornado was a call from the Watford City Police chief about a funnel cloud south of town. A spotter also reported a funnel cloud and a tornado warning was issued at 7:46 p.m., Martin said.
“The tornado was actually on top of them,” said Martin, as he and a team assessed the damage Tuesday. “For the folks here, there was basically no warning.”
The weather service advises people who live in mobile homes or campers to seek permanent shelter with friends and neighbors.
“The issue here is friends and neighbors are also in semi-permanent housing,” Martin said. “Where are they all going to go? I don’t think there’s an answer to that.”
Martin said another option is to seek shelter in a low-lying area. He heard from people who sought shelter in a ravine behind the affected park and were not hurt.
Juniper Campground at Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit was evacuated after earlier reports showed the tornado's path might go through it. A ranger collected the eight groups of campers and brought them to the west edge of the park to Oxbow Overlook until it was safe to return, chief ranger Dean Wyckoff said. The groups ended up seeing heavy rain, high winds and hail.
At the park, rangers and campground hosts monitor weather in case an evacuation is needed. The restroom buildings can serve as shelters, Wyckoff said.
But with the NWS information received Monday night, “it was more prudent to get them away from that particular area,” he said.
The campground is about 10 miles southwest of where the tornado touched down.
“Especially if you’re out doing the camping thing … keep some kind of communication open so you know what possibly could be coming,” Brew said. “If not, look at the sky.”
‘A wakeup call’
Compounding the notification problem, smaller RV parks that settle in rural areas often aren’t registered with their county, causing headaches for emergency responders who try to find them.
“There are still many that are just popping up in the middle of nowhere that we do not know where they are, and so it makes it difficult for public safety to try to notify locations that don’t exist,” Hallesy said. “It brings up the whole ball of wax as to where are you, how do we get to you, what’s the nature of this call.”
Hallesy estimated as many as 6,000 people live in campers in Williams County.
That’s not including workforce housing, or “man camps,” which he said are a bit safer.
“I rate the risk assessment on mobile RVs much higher than I do a man camp because the man camps are anchored, they’re steel-structured units that are all bolted together, they’re big complexes,” he said, “where a camper on wheels, (they’re) typically are not securely anchored nor is the equipment meant to withstand any sort of severe weather.”
Dakotaland Lodging, which has manufactured housing for about 600 people, has its own emergency notification system for its camp outside Tioga, company President Alan Spencer said.
Other Dakotaland camps -- in Alexander, Williston and Dickinson -- are close enough to city sirens to be covered, but the rural Tioga camp’s necessitates a text or voice call alert that residents are automatically signed up for when they move in.
“Certainly they’re out by themselves,” Spencer said.
About 200 residents live in the Tioga camp, off U.S. Highway 2.
“Locations that don’t have sirens are at a huge disadvantage, and they're in harm’s way,” Spencer said. “That’s why we’ve added the call systems.”
Dakotaland has arrangements for shelter in the case of severe weather -- residents could go to the Catholic church, senior citizens center in Ray or to the high school and elementary schools in Tioga.
Sand Creek Estates, which has parks in Tioga and Williston, has similar arrangements -- the Williston High School auditorium is available for the 238 residents at that park, for example, said Janie Kastrinos, a property manager with the company. Local television stations broadcast shelter sites alongside severe weather information, she said.
Management teams for the Dakotaland locations had a call Tuesday morning in light of Monday’s storm to review their emergency plans, Spencer said.
“This is a wakeup call for everybody to make sure we have a plan in place.”