MENTOR, Minn. -- On a recent June day, Harlan Kirkeide stood near his business in Mentor, Minn., and recalled the deadly tornado that ripped through the Polk County town nine years ago.
Kirkeide remembers it as if it was yesterday: The sky turning green, the trees swirling and, later, the tornado slamming into the convenience store across the street where Wes Michaels died trying to protect his daughter from the storm.
It’s quite a contrast from this clear, breezy day in June 2019 as Kirkeide stands in front of his Boats R-Us shop in Mentor.
“It sounded like a freight train, just like they say it does,” Kirkeide said as he pointed toward the path the tornado followed. “I didn’t know it was going to happen here. I just know I don’t want to go through one of them again.”
The Mentor tornado was one of 48 that touched down on June 17, 2010, in Minnesota, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website. In North Dakota, there were 12 touchdowns that day, including two powerful EF4 tornadoes.
The twisters spawned that afternoon were born out of a supercell of storms that grew throughout the region as warm, moist air met an advancing cold front. The day stands as a powerful reminder that tornadoes are prevalent and at times devastating, even hundreds of miles north of what traditionally is considered the nation's Tornado Alley.
There have been approximately 1,600 tornado touchdowns in North Dakota since 1950, according to the most recent data from the National Weather Service. In Minnesota, there have been more than 1,800 recorded touchdowns since 1950.
In North Dakota, the county with the most reported tornadoes since 1950 is Cass County, with 97. In Minnesota, the top tornado-producing county since 1950 is Otter Tail, with 73. Counties in the northern Red River Valley aren't far behind.
But tracking the exact number of tornadoes in any span of length is difficult because the record-keeping of storms has changed over time, according to Alec Hetherington, a UND graduate student in the atmospheric sciences department.
From 2000 through 2017, there were an average of 31 reported tornadoes per year in North Dakota. By comparison, Nebraska averages about 42 tornadoes per year. North Dakota's total is higher than previous eras, like the 1950s and 1960s, when there were an average of around 20-25 twisters reported annually.
National Weather Service meteorologist Brad Hopkins said it does not necessarily mean there are more tornadoes happening in recent history. It likely means more tornadoes are being recorded thanks to advances in technology and general usage of cellphones, which allow witnesses to easily report tornadoes and also to document the storms with still photos or video. That wasn’t happening decades ago.
The public also is generally more aware of severe weather, thanks to increased news coverage -- supported by advanced technology -- of storms over the past 50 years.
Also, there are more people in the region today than there were a century ago.
“What’s to say they couldn’t have had the same amount of tornadoes 150 years ago, but you have to consider the population density back in the late 1880s compared to today,” Hopkins said.
By the numbers
A majority of the reported tornadoes in North Dakota form along the Red River Valley. However, Hopkins says there are many factors that go into a tornado being formed
Hopkins said tornadic activity peaks in spring and early summer because the jet stream is at its more northern point, which typically brings more storm activity.
Tornadoes happen most frequently in June and July in North Dakota and Minnesota. There have been approximately 600 tornadoes in June from 1950 to 2017; in July there have been around 500. However, North Dakota has had tornadoes occur in March, April and November.
Where tornadoes touch down varies, though, and mostly depends on the strength of the storm and whether it is capable of producing a tornado that is then recorded by a witness.
“It just depends a lot on the environmental conditions at the time,” he said.
In North Dakota
Last year there were 28 tornadoes in North Dakota, including three each in Cass and Grand Forks counties. Dunn County had five, according to data from the National Weather Service.
Historically, Cass County ranks first in the state for reported tornadoes, with 97 recorded from 1950 to 2018. Grand Forks County comes in second with 77 tornadoes, followed by Barnes County with 58, Ward County with 55, Walsh County with 54, Richland County with 53 and Stutsman County with 52.
Much of the southwestern portion of the state ranks toward the bottom of reported tornadoes. Billings County has had just seven tornadoes and Golden Valley County has had 10. There have been 12 tornadoes recorded in Adams County, while Slope County has had 11, according to National Weather Service data.
Sixty-two years ago this week -- on June 20, 1957 -- was one of the state’s most dangerous tornadoes, when an EF5 storm hit Fargo, causing 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries.
The state’s second deadliest tornado happened July 4, 1978, when an F4 twister killed five people and injured 35 others. That storm touched down in Grant County, near Elgin, and traveled 26 miles during its hour on the ground.
In North Dakota, there have been 26 tornado-related deaths since 1950 and more than 300 injuries.
According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, there have been approximately 1,900 tornadoes in the state since 1950. Those tornadoes have resulted in 99 deaths, though none since 2011, and nearly 2,000 injuries.
2010 was a record year for Minnesota, with 113 tornadoes, including 71 in June 2010.
The tornado outbreak that occurred on June 17, 2010, resulted in three deaths and 45 injuries in the region. A large number of homes in Wadena County were damaged or destroyed when two tornadoes went through the town that day.
The Minnesota county with the most reported tornadoes since 1950 is Otter Tail, with 73. Polk County, in the northern Red River Valley, has had 72 touchdowns since 1950.
Roseau County has had 35 tornadoes, Kittson County has had 33 and Marshall County has had 32 reported tornadoes.
Farther south, there have been 38 tornadoes recorded in Clay County and 31 in Wilkin County, while Becker County has had 30.
The deadliest tornado in Minnesota history occurred on April 14, 1886, near St. Cloud. The twister killed 72 people and injured more than 200.
2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the state’s second deadliest tornado in Minnesota history, when a twister hit Fergus Falls and resulted in 57 deaths and approximately 200 injuries.
Living through the storm
While tornadoes come with quantifiable physical damage, death tolls and injury counts, the storms also take an emotional toll on the people who live there. The storms are nearly impossible to forget.
In 2007, an EF4 tornado ripped through Northwood, N.D., killing 57-year-old Larry Weisz and injuring 18 others.
According to Herald archives, 431 of the 460 homes in the community sustained at least some damage in the Sunday night catastrophe.
"It kind of makes you step back and take a look and just realize how much power Mother Nature has -- and there's nothing you can do about it," former Mayor Rick Johnson said during a 2017 interview with the Herald. "We couldn't prevent it in any way. And as you drove through town, you couldn't believe it."
But Northwood recovered. Debris was cleaned up, homes were rebuilt and a new school was constructed.
The 2010 tornado that hit Mentor, Minn., only lasted about two minutes. But to Harlan Kirkeide, it felt like a lifetime.
Kirkeide was fortunate. The tornado stayed across the street and didn’t hit his business, but he remembers hanging on to the door for dear life. He also remembers his wife sticking her head out the door of the Dairy Queen, across the street, to let him know she was OK after the tornado passed. And he recalls insulation falling from the sky like snow as he ran across the street to help those who were in the C-store.
Today, the convenience store has been rebuilt. The Dairy Queen has been fixed up, too.
But for Kirkeide, it all still feels fresh -- even on a calm, sunny day seven years later.
“It was something you don’t forget,” he said. “My wife and I feel pretty lucky to be here.”