WATERTOWN, S.D. — A violent complex of storms roared through the Upper Midwest on Thursday evening, unleashing destructive wind gusts over 100 mph while stirring up a towering wall of dust.
The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that one person was killed after a grain bin fell on a car in Kandiyohi County, Minn., about 85 miles west of the Twin Cities.
The dust cloud swept up by the storm produced scenes reminiscent of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Technically called a “haboob,” it swallowed entire communities as the storm complex, racing northeast at breakneck speeds of 65 to 85 mph, turned day into night.
In the breakfast area at a Hampton Inn and Suites in Watertown, S.D., weary travelers on Friday morning were recounting their experiences with the fast-moving line of storms that had swallowed the hotel Thursday night.
“There was a lot of wind, and it was really strong … at least 90 mph,” said Carol Buesing, who was in town with a number of friends. “But the dust … it got so dark. We’re from Texas, we know haboobs. And this was one.”
Buesing was traveling from Huron, S.D., where a gust to 90 mph was logged by the official weather station at the municipal airport.
Candles and flashlights remained on mantels, coffee tables and banisters around the hotel lobby, left there by management Thursday afternoon in anticipation of losing power in the storms. About a dozen people had hunkered down in an interior hallway off the lobby as sirens blared during tornado warnings.
While Watertown, home to about 22,000 residents, was spared the storm’s worst, a tornado formed along the line of storms in Castlewood, about 10 miles to the south-southeast. Two houses and the north side of a school were damaged.
Qween Lee, a travel agent specializing in cross-country road trips, drove in to Watertown from North Carolina with her son and her 86-year-old mother in tow. “We saw trucks all flipped over from the time we hit the state line coming westbound into South Dakota,” she said. “Most of the trucks were flipped over in the middle or in the middle of the road. Some were upside down. We lost count after about 40 trucks.”
The trio was driving near Brookings, S.D., when the storm hit. Lee had it on her bucket list to get to every state, and North Dakota was the last one. “But after last night, I said, ‘I don’t care if we only get to the state line on the interstate,’” she said. “‘You can get out, touch the state line and take your picture.’”
Her son, Jream Muhammad, described the experience as “surreal.”
“It was like the clouds were eclipsing the sun,” he said. “We were just getting engulfed. We parked near a gas station but then moved because there was lightning everywhere.”
Clint Cowan of Frisco, Tex., another traveler in town for a graduation, described the eerie darkness that accompanied the line of midafternoon storms.
“I can’t ever remember seeing dust like that in South Dakota,” he said. “It was almost like a gray. All the lights came on. We were sitting in [Applebees] having a beverage and it looked like night.”
Producing widespread damage along an extensive path, the storm complex met some criteria of a derecho — the meteorological term for an arcing, fast-moving line of violent storms whose damage can be comparable to that of a hurricane.
The evening’s most extreme wind gust — 107 mph — was clocked in Hutchinson County, S.D., about 50 miles west of Sioux Falls.
The National Weather Service in Sioux Falls, S.D., said it was actively working quality control on the 107 mph measurement. Initially workers there were doubtful, but they accepted the measurement after reviewing radar data.
Other top gusts included:
- 102 mph in Deuel County, S.D.
- 97 mph in Madison, S.D.
- 96 mph in Wentworth, S.D.
- 94 mph in Madison, Minn.
- 90 mph in Huron, S.D.
- 89 mph in Ord, Neb.
- 80 mph in Artichoke, Minn.
- 79 mph in Graceville, Minn.
- 75 mph in Canby, Minn.
As of 11 a.m. Eastern time Friday, the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center had received 59 reports of winds gusting over 74 mph, the second most on record for a calendar day. The record holder for the most 74-plus mph gusts occurred less than six months ago: Dec. 15, 2021.
The Weather Service also issued numerous tornado warnings because of small areas of rotation embedded within the bowing storm complex. Four twisters were confirmed.
Reports to the Weather Service indicated that the storm’s high winds uprooted trees, downed wires, flattened fences, blew off shingles and even peeled off entire roofs in some instances. Numerous sheds and barns were destroyed.
The Weather Service had highlighted the areas hardest hit, declaring a Level 4 out of 5 risk of severe thunderstorms Thursday morning, and then issued a “particularly dangerous situation” severe thunderstorm watch in the afternoon, reserved for the most serious storm potential. It cautioned that “a prolific wind-damage event … [is] expected to unfold,” writing that scattered gusts up to 105 mph were possible.
As the storms closed in, it issued dire warnings that triggered Wireless Emergency Alerts. The warnings called for winds of 80 to 100 mph as the storms bolted northeastward. In a warning for portions of west-central Minnesota, the Weather Service office in the Twin Cities wrote: “THESE ARE DESTRUCTIVE STORMS,” noting that they could produce 100 mph winds. “You are in a life-threatening situation,” the warning stated.
I-90 from Mitchell to Sioux Falls through 600 pm will see wind gusts of 80 to 100 mph, with the strongest gusts coming from a more southerly direction, making travel on I-90 VERY DANGEROUS DURING THIS TIME!!— NWS Sioux Falls (@NWSSiouxFalls) May 12, 2022
The event was, in some ways, reminiscent of the Iowa derecho of August 2020, the most costly thunderstorm disaster in U.S. history.
Thursday’s storm complex was fueled by a sprawling heat dome responsible for setting record highs from Texas to Maine. The hottest temperatures — relative to normal — were focused in the Upper Midwest. The storms erupted as this hot air was met by much cooler air encroaching from the northwest.
As with the violent thunderstorm and tornado outbreaks in December, the intensity of this event raises questions about the possible role of human-caused climate change. The December outbreaks were similarly fueled by record-breaking temperatures, which climate change makes more probable.
Was it a derecho?
From the standpoint of its impacts, magnitude and structure, for all intents and purposes the storm complex was a derecho.
According to some definitions, the term “derecho” requires a strict set of conditions to be met — namely that the swath of winds persist for a given distance. It’s unclear if that was the case.
The American Meteorological Society writes that “damage must be incurred either continuously or intermittently over a swath of at least 650 km (~400 mi) and a width of approximately 100 km (~60 mi) or more.”
While storms stretched from the Kansas-Nebraska border to near the Twin Cities from south to north, they propagated east only about 250 miles.
Nevertheless, the Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center did refer to the event as a derecho in a tweet Thursday night.
Dusty and stormy scenes
Samenow reported from Washington.