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Tornado lowers the boom on Bemidji for Fourth of July

Residents and officials clean up storm damage along Irvine Avenue Northwest and 18th Street Northwest on Wednesday morning, July 4, in Bemidji, Minn. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service1 / 3
Trees along 18th Street Northwest in front of St. Batholomew's Church were all uprooted after a storm on Wednesday morning, July 4, in Bemidji, Minn. (Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service2 / 3
A garage behind a home on America Court Northwest was lifted during a storm early Wednesday, July 4, in Bemidji, Minn. Jillian Gandsey / Forum News Service3 / 3

BEMIDJI - Officials confirmed Wednesday evening that a tornado with 90 to 100 mph winds touched down in Bemidji earlier in the day.

The EF1 tornado caused severe damage in certain areas of Bemidji, but reports of damage from the storm were reported around southern Beltrami County.

Beltrami County Emergency Management Director Chris Muller said about 12 square blocks of the city were affected during the weather event, which happened at about 6:30 a.m. Wednesday. Numerous trees and power lines were downed in the area, and trees were seen on houses, cars, as well as on roads and alleyways. No injuries were reported, Muller said.

The hardest hit area was north of JW Smith Elementary School, along 18th Street Northwest, from Delton Avenue Northwest to Bemidji Avenue North and was approximately 200 yards wide, Muller said in a release. Numerous trees and power lines were knocked down. Several garages and lighter construction building sustained damage along with shingle damage to residential roofs in the area, officials said.

City and county officials urged the public to avoid the area early Wednesday as there were downed power lines and crews were at work cleaning up the area.

There was additional damage observed to the west/southwest of Bemidji that was likely the result of strong straight-line winds, the release said. A retired sheriff’s deputy reported seeing a funnel cloud just west of Bemidji moments before the damage reports started to be received by the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office 911 Center, the release said.

Officials with the National Weather Service in Grand Forks and Beltrami County Emergency Management conducted a damage assessment on Wednesday afternoon to confirm the strength of the storm.

The tornado was associated with a large swath of thunderstorms that were moving across northern Minnesota in the early morning hours Wednesday, officials said. While there were no active severe weather warnings for Beltrami County early Wednesday, the weather service did have the area under a “Significant Weather Advisory,” as anticipated impacts were below severe weather criteria, the release said.

Muller said “the tornado developed very quickly and there was little to no time for warning. Outdoor warning sirens and CodeRED were not utilized as the storm impacts had expired before activation could take place.”

Moving through quickly

Ron Johnson, Ward 3 City Council member who lives on Beltrami Court in the hardest hit area, said their property nearly missed the storm. “We were just getting ready to head out, we wouldn’t even have been here,” said Johnson, who was planning to leave early Wednesday for the family’s lake cabin for the Fourth of July.

“We’re gonna lose five trees. The one we wanted to take down stayed up, of course,” he laughed.

Minnesota Court resident Melanie Cleveland woke up to her loyal companion, her golden retriever lab mix Lord Stanley whining at her bedside just before the high winds hit.

“By the time I realized what was happening, it was over,” Cleveland said. Her patio furniture was tossed around and her shingles were pulled up slightly but she was one of the fortunate few without serious damage. Her neighbors were outside and helping to clean up just a few minutes later that morning. “That’s what I love about Bemidji,” Cleveland said. “Everybody’s ready and willing to help.”

BSU senior criminal justice major Kyle Shea was one of those out helping in the neighborhood Wednesday morning. “I saw my neighbors windows being shattered,” Shea said. He was up and closing his windows when the storm hit, though it was over as soon as it began. “Probably (lasted) less than two minutes,” he said.

Jeffrey Smith and wife Rebecca Steward woke up to the sound of heavy winds.

“It came so fast, I didn’t even get all the windows closed,” Smith said. They were fortunate none of their trees had been blown down, but they didn’t escape the storm completely unscathed. Two of their vehicles were parked on the street, one of which was a new Volkswagen Golf the couple has owned for only three months. It was hit by a tree from a neighbor’s yard. Thankfully, the damages were minor.

“No complaints, I guess. . . it could have been a lot worse,” Smith said.

City to help pick up debris

A number a city wells and lift stations were damaged in Wednesday's storm and successfully repaired by city crews, according to a release Wednesday afternoon from Bemidji City Manager Nate Mathews.

Mathews said there were a number of downed trees on city streets and alleys that were cleared and removed.

As for homeowners and residents with significant tree damage on private property, as it has done in the past, the city will pick up trees, logs and brush from the storm area if it is brought out to the curb by by Thursday, July 12. The last day for pickup will be Friday, July 13, the release said.

The city will not be able to pick up any stumps or root balls. And the area the city will pick up will be for those areas with significant storm damage.  A map of the city collection areas will be provided to the Pioneer and other local news outlets on Thursday, July 5, and will be posted to the city's website on Thursday.

Not the first time

Bemidjians are no strangers to heavy storms around the Fourth of July. On July 2, 2012, a violent storm swept through the area with winds in excess of 80 mph. That storm was widespread, causing extensive damage for 1,000 square miles, downing trees, power lines and knocking out power to 25,000 customers from Park Rapids to Grand Rapids.

That storm hit Bemidji just before 7 p.m., sending those attending the Jaycees Water Carnival scrambling for cover. There were no deaths or serious injuries reported, but it took days for all power to be restored and cleanup took several weeks.

Wednesday’s tornado is the fourth significant severe weather incident to impact Beltrami County in the past six days, Muller’s office said. Beltrami County remains in a State of Emergency due to impacts from severe weather last Friday where winds of 80 to 100 mph did significant damage in the central and northeastern part of the county.

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