Tornados took county, NWS by surprise
When four powerful tornados ripped through the region Friday morning, Hubbard County wasn't in a tornado watch.
"It came at a time in the day that's just not very common for tornados," said Gregory Gust, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) in Grand Forks.
NWS had said that the two tornados that struck the Menahga area were EF 2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, meaning the tornados were packing winds between 111 mph and 135 mph. The twisters that struck Pickerel Lake were EF 3 force, with wind speeds between 136 mph and 165 mph.
It's been a point of contention as to whether this was one long continuous storm, as Hubbard County Emergency Management director Dave W. Konshok maintains, or multiple individual tornados. NWS says it was a cluster of funnel clouds, four separate tornados in all.
Gust said the area had been in a watch the night of June 5 and part of that Thursday but all of the weather watches had expired by 6 a.m. Friday.
"There had been expectations that there could be significant potential for both severe weather and heavy rains possible, and flash flooding, but that all kind of dropped off by 6 in the morning so at that point much of all the threat area had diminished," he said.
Gust explained that a large cold pool aloft was centered near Grand Forks at the time of the first tornado outbreak. "Ahead of it was a warm southerly flow - not that warm - but a little bit of sunshine. There was a little break in the clouds that came through early that morning and it just so happened that area moving up over Wadena into Hubbard County just warmed things up into the low 70s," Gust said.
With dew points in the 60s and rapidly changing winds through the atmosphere, the conditions were ripe for twisters.
"The cloud itself, there was very little if any thunder and lightning with that storm," he said. "And no hail."
The National Weather Service (NWS) has theorized that the two systems essentially collided, spawning the line of tornados that stretched nearly 50 miles.
The tornados' strength waxed and waned, Gust said, finally powering up near Pickerel Lake, where the heaviest damage was concentrated. Hubbard County emergency personnel reported that funnel clouds appeared to split twice and head into different directions. As the twisters dipped up and down into the clouds, they gathered strength, Gust said.
"There was a suspicion that at some point there was something that was going off east toward Dorset and Nevis," Gust said. "That's the area we did an overflight with a plane, and the DNR went over that area with a chopper and we couldn't see evidence of a ground track," Gust said. "From the air we couldn't see the type of downed trees that we saw off the main track so at this point we don't know of any damage in that area."
Gust said the tornadic winds that struck the Park Rapids area shortly after 9:30 a.m. took down phone lines and power systems. The NWS satellite transmitter, which broadcasts from a tower on Portage Lake, went down at 9:43 a.m. after broadcasting its first warning at 9:31 a.m.
The tower had an auxiliary power system, so it had power, but without phone lines, it had no capability to transmit warnings to weather radios.
"There's really not a good substitute for a good wire system," Gust said when asked what could be done to prevent such a problem in the future. "With all of the powerful storms, they can take out your communication. You saw that with Hurricane Katrina."
Hubbard County Sheriff Gary Mills can attest to the communications problems. Officers lost touch with each other when their patrol unit radios quit working at the height of the storm.
They eventually set up a command post at the Lake Emma Township Hall but had to resort to using their cell phones, which had trouble getting signals in the wooded area.
"Eventually the NWS will be going to a satellite downlink, like an XM satellite-type of feed and that's over the course of the next several years," Gust said. "There's some transmitters linked via microwave but the problem with those is that in severe weather heavy rains will cause problems with the signal reception.
"The best way is wire," Gust said. "With any storm if you take out the telephone switch you're losing it. Here the power stayed on because there was a backup generator, but we couldn't transmit to the radio system without the phone lines."
"All systems have limitations," Konshok said.
"We bought a few of those $21 weather radios," said county coordinator Jack Paul. "Two of them didn't go off, two of them have nothing but static when you turn it on. The one in Lee's (Gwiazdon, building and grounds maintenance manager) office went off but he wasn't at his desk."
Gust said he's not sure why certain weather radios malfunctioned at crucial times, but suggested programming them correctly might help in the next weather emergency.
The NWS satellite used to be on a local radio station tower but was moved a few years ago, Gust said. Moving the transmitter to Portage Lake didn't change the frequency, however. People with weather radios should tune them to 162.475 MHz (megahertz.)
And Gust notes that tornado survivor Susan Vessey, who has lived on Pickerel Lake for 40 years, was warned by her weather radio. But Vessey said the tornado came so fast she didn't have time to duck into her crawl space.