FLOODWOOD — Elsie Tollgaard was vacuuming when the electricity went out. Then her husband came in: "Get down in the basement and pray, it's going to be a bad one."
Then, in her memory, a quiet settled.
Across the road, 10-year-old Jim Dusek closed his eyes in a basement as a freight train of noise enveloped his world. When he looked up, he saw sky.
It took 30 seconds for their family dairy farms, and several others in the area, to be shredded to pieces and strewn about the woods by a strong tornado; amazingly no one was killed or seriously hurt.
Little did they know that it was just one of a dozen tornadoes that swept across the Northland 50 years ago this week, killing 15 and injuring more than 100. There has not been a deadlier set of cyclones in Minnesota since.
The F4 that cut across Roosevelt Lake in Outing on Aug. 6, 1969 wreaked the most carnage, claiming 12 lives and injuring 70 — many of them children. Two were killed near Boulder Lake, and another man lost his life near Ball Bluff.
Had the F3 that traced the St. Louis River outside of Floodwood landed slightly south, it would have struck the crowds enjoying the last day of the fair.
"It was a horrible thing and we're thankful to be here today," said Tollgaard, now 83.
She and her husband rebuilt and returned to normal, or what passed for it, as the trauma of that day stretched across the decades.
"If there are storms now I am still afraid," Tollgaard said.
As the handful of low-impact tornadoes this summer showed, Northeastern Minnesota is not immune to them. Not even the big ones.
"The 1969 tornado outbreak is a rare event," said meteorologist Joe Moore at the National Weather Service in Duluth, "but we should certainly be prepared for it to happen again in our lifetime somewhere in the Northland."
Assessing the damage
Sue Moline's memory of that day is brief. Or it used to be.
Now she carries the memories of hundreds of survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones that day.
Moline, who lives in Bloomington, has been collecting survivors' stories and plans to write a book about it; she has been approached about a possible documentary as well.
"I wanted to leave the story for my kids and grandkids," she said. "The more I learn the more amazed I am for those of us who survived."
Moline was a teenager on family vacation at a cabin on Roosevelt Lake when the tornado tore through, killing seven people she knew, including her sister, grandmother and cousin.
"The first time I heard someone say there's a tornado coming, I looked out the window and the house moved," Moline said. "That is not what you think is ever going to happen on your summer vacation."
She shared the following accounts with permission from the survivors:
The Zagar sisters, Leavitt Lake
Marge (Zagar) Burns, age 9: "The day the tornado hit, Mom left me with my three older sisters. She went to nearby Emily to wash the clothes. We were watching 'I Love Lucy' on TV, I remember watching the picture turn to black and white lines."
Katie (Zagar) Nelson, age 15: "I remember screaming prayers at the top of our lungs, watching the big tree through the window at the neighbor's cabin fall down like a toothpick, I remember not being able to hold on to Mary (age 11) or really any of you as we all tumbled and were thrown about as the walls, floors and roof of the cabin were ripped away. When it was all done I remember looking for the three of you, we didn't have shoes, I remember we were on the ground as the floor had been ripped up and we had rolled off the foundation and we were dumped on the ground."
Carole (Zagar) Korte, age 10: "My sister Mary was picked up and dropped in the kitchen sink on the few remaining cupboards, because she broke away from our huddle in the corner of the addition to run and save our dog Penny."
Burns: "When we 'woke up' power lines were everywhere. Our biggest fear was that the lines would kill us. Miracles happened that day for my family."
Korte: "I suffered a gash on my lower leg from a storm window it went through, and my sister Katie had a deep scrape in her forearm which we still bear the scars from to this day. We have my sister Katie to thank for saving us all that day, because she had read a TV Guide article just the week before on how to take shelter in the event you are in a home without a basement when a Tornado strikes!"
Burns: "To this day, I do not take any storm lightly and have taught my four daughters and their families the same."
Nelson: "To this day anytime I hear of a tornado, tornado warning or a tornado watch a jolt of fear runs through my soul."
Still picking up
It takes a very specific set of conditions to generate tornadoes.
"In our area ... we tend to see a handful of tornadoes every few years," said Moore with the National Weather Service. "The conditions that happened in 1969 are present every summer. It's rare to get them all at the same time."
It's also getting harder to not see one coming. Today there are sirens, radars, smartphone alerts, TV and radio and web reports that can give those in harm's way a lifesaving head start toward shelter.
There are also more people living in the paths of the outbreak. One of the tornadoes that touched down last month followed the same path as one of those that hit northern St. Louis County 50 years ago.
"It does make me a little nervous," Moore said. "There has been buildup of this area in the past 50 years — not urban sprawl, but there are certainly more cabins and more people recreating in the woods."
Driving around the path of the Floodwood tornado last week, Jim Dusek points out who still lives where and how the willow-rich wetland was flattened.
"We lost all seven buildings, over half of our cows," Dusek said. "You could hear the nails getting ripped up. We didn't realize then how dangerous it was."
Near the road that bears his family's name, Dusek ducks into the woods and quickly finds a few well-preserved pieces of tin. That's the old farm, violently scattered in an instant and peacefully at rest ever since.
Even after all the rebuilding, all those years, the scars of the storm are still there, if you look for them.
Winds of Remembrance Picnic
What: Survivors and families will gather for a picnic lunch to mark the 50th anniversary of the deadly 1969 tornado outbreak. Pictures and video will be shared. Church bells will ring at 5 p.m. to commemorate those who died.
When: 1-5 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Luscher's Park on Lawrence Lake, County Road 58, Outing, Minn.
Survivors looking to share their stories with Sue Moline can reach her at email@example.com or 952-237-3510.