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Tornadoes hit Rolette County

Six homes were destroyed and about 10 other buildings -- including an apartment complex -- were damaged by a tornado that struck the northern edge of Rolla, N.D., on Monday afternoon.

Six homes were destroyed and about 10 other buildings -- including an apartment complex -- were damaged by a tornado that struck the northern edge of Rolla, N.D., on Monday afternoon.

A severe storm with reported tornadoes also caused damage in and near Belcourt, N.D., also in northern Rolette County. Tornado touchdowns also were reported in several other northeastern North Dakota counties late Monday afternoon and early evening.

The Rolette County storms injured at least two people, one from Belcourt who was airlifted to a Minot hospital. The other man, injured outside Rolla, had minor injuries.

Gov. John Hoeven sent state resources to the scene Monday and made plans to visit Rolla and Belcourt this morning to view the damage and meet with local residents and officials.

In Rolla, no serious injuries were reported as sirens blew for 5 to 10 minutes before the tornado hit about 3:30 p.m., according to several witnesses.

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Rolla Police Chief Tom Allard said the National Weather Service provided enough warning that weather spotters were dispersed. He sighted the tornado heading toward town and called for the sirens.

"It's a sick feeling," he said. "Like I've been telling people, I could see it coming, but there's nothing I could do about it."

Initial cleanup begins

Allard said a massive cleanup operation was under way Monday night for the estimated 16 buildings that were damaged. Many people were covering homes where roofs had blown away.

Red Cross workers had joined the emergency personnel in providing assistance.

Allard said all of the residents in the damaged homes had been accounted for. "Although the incident was bad, it could have been a lot worse as far as people being seriously hurt," Allard said. "A lot of people were away from their residences since it happened in the middle of the day when many were at work."

The heaviest damage from the tornado was on 12th Avenue. Another tornado may have briefly touched down on the southern edge of the city because the football field's crow's nest was blown away and the scoreboard was mangled.

Three different tornadoes were sighted in the area, according to Marie Kakela, who watched the tornado develop near the family farm in Hansboro, northeast of Rolla.

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Randy Loing, Rolla's high school principal, was at his south-end home when the sirens started sounding. Because his home lacks a basement, he headed with sons Jacob, 10, and Jared, 9, to a friend's home on the north end.

"As we were driving down the street, we saw the funnel cloud coming from the west," Loing said. "Just after we got into the basement, the wind came up, it got dark and my ears popped from the pressure.

"I tackled my kids to the floor, laid on top of them, and in 10 seconds, it was pretty much over."

'It's just really a mess'

Resident Sheila Zinke said she was under shelter for about 10 minutes before the tornado hit. "I was watching it from my basement, and I actually saw it come across the north section of town. We could tell that it probably did some damage because we saw some things flying up in the air."

Zinke, a teacher, said she text-messaged two of her students, and they told her the roofs were blown off their homes but no one was hurt.

Roofs, rafters and insulation littered yards.

Matt Peterson's rented duplex had both of its garages ripped away by the high winds. But both of his neighbors had more substantial damage, he said.

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"The houses on each side of us are pretty much shot," Peterson said. "The only thing left of the (Craig and Sheri) Leas house was the interior walls."

Power was still out in that section of town at 8 p.m. Monday. Our Savior's Lutheran Church, a block away from the devastation, was being used as an emergency operations center.

East of Rolla, pieces of tin from blown-away grain bins were hanging from the power lines. Debris from farmyards was in the fields as far east as three miles.

"It's just really a mess," Kakela said.

True Value Hardware in Rolla stayed open Monday night to distribute plywood, according to a cashier who said she's heard a report of a home moved 3 feet off its foundation.

Todd Griffin, a firefighter, was treated and released at Rolla's Presentation Medical Center when his vehicle was lifted off the ground and slammed into an electrical pole two miles north of Rolla. He returned to work after being treated.

An injured Belcourt man was airlifted to Trinity Hospital in Minot with a pelvic fracture, according to a spokeswoman from Quentin Burdick Hospital in Belcourt. His condition is not being released. Preliminary reports indicated the man had been trapped in his home, according to the governor's office.

Belcourt area damage

West of Rolla, at least one tornado touched down in the Belcourt area on the Turtle Mountain reservation, according to reports from area residents.

People reported funnel clouds that touched the ground near Anishinabe Learning and Cultural Awareness Center, a part of the Turtle Mountain Community College that consists of several buildings with classrooms and faculty offices about a mile north of Belcourt.

A tornado was spotted hitting the water at Belcourt Lake, west of the community college and then again on the eastern shore of the lake, where a straw bale building that contains classrooms was damaged.

Residents reported the fierce winds tore shingles from the tops of houses and blew trees and power lines to the ground. Belcourt police, firefighters and road crews worked to clear debris from roadways, according to a police dispatcher.

Four state Highway Patrol officers helped local officials secure damaged areas and deal with traffic control, while North Dakota Department of Transportation crews provided cleanup assistance, according to the governor's office.

"We extend our sympathy to those who were injured and to the families whose homes were destroyed or damaged," Hoeven said in a statement. "I've asked the Department of Emergency Services to respond with any state resources the communities feel are necessary to help in the aftermath of this destructive storm."

Hoeven plans to tour the damage starting at 8 this morning. A news conference is set for 9 a.m. in the Rolette County Courthouse. Hoeven will be in Belcourt at 10:30 this morning to meet with Turtle Mountain tribal officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters.

The National Weather Service posted 15 tornado warnings Monday afternoon and night, affecting 13 North Dakota counties, plus Kittson and Marshall counties in northwestern Minnesota.

Herald staff writers Mike Brue, Susanne Nadeau and James R. Johnson contributed to this report. The story also includes information from The Associated Press.

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