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The Memorial Day Tornado

Updated on August 14, 2015

In January of 2014 I took a break from practicing law in my home state of Minnesota to work in the North Dakota oil wells. I had heard so much prior talk about the modern day gold rush in Western North Dakota I felt like I needed to get in on the action there, even just temporarily, before all the Texas tea there was redistributed into the atmosphere.

I ended up spending a total of seventeen months in Bakken before returning home to Minnesota. This was five months longer than I had originally planned on staying out there, but while I probably could've stayed even longer, by late Spring of 2015 I'd had my fill. My only desire at that point was to return to the lush green state I had never seized calling my home, (which I promptly followed through with in Mid-June of that year).

While working in the oil wells could most definitely be considered a memorable experience, it's not the kind adventure I try to look back on very frequently. As I had predicted before leaving Minnesota a year and a half earlier, it was not the most appealing place to spend time at. Rather, Bakken ended up being about what I had expected: a cold, windy, desolate dessert with pump jacks, drilling rigs, oil tanks, natural gas fires and water and petroleum haulers pretty much everywhere you looked. There was one other thing I saw there, however, that I wasn't expecting: a certain weather phenomena that's rarely observed by human eyes. I'm not talking about a downburst or a dust devil, (two rather common weather events in the Flickertail state), but a well pronounced vertical funnel-shaped cloud wreaking havoc over landscape, otherwise known as a tornado. Rare things oftentimes happen when you least expect them too. This couldn't have been a better example.

It happened on Memorial Day of 2014, about four and a half months after I first arrived in the Midwest's modern oil region. I'd been hauling flowback water from a frac site called the Wahpeton to a disposal site called the Hystad, which was about fifteen miles North of Watford City, ND, all throughout that day. Preparing to haul my final load of the work shift off of location, I noticed some nasty looking storm clouds rolling in. I half-jokingly informed the company man on location to beware of possible funnel clouds that evening while handing him the invoice for my services there before departing.

It was while unloading at the Hystad about a half hour later that the heavy rain began to fall. I and several other truckers were waiting there for a swap-out van to pick us up, and drop off the nightshift drivers. We were all sopping wet by the time it arrived: all of us, however, more concerned about lightning strikes near the twenty-five foot uprights we were unloading into than the possibility of a tornado. Upon the van's arrival, the five of us, cold and drenched, set off on the sixteen mile journey over poorly maintained gravel roads back to the shop one mile South of Watford City.

It was just a couple of minutes after departing from the Hystad that the hail began to fall. About golf ball sized at first, but eventually increasing to baseball, and finally near softball sized. We were all astonished as we stared out our windows listening to the van's roof cave in, and the windshield get bombarded with ice bombs from the sky. The video I attached below, which was taken from my cell phone, perhaps depicts this incident the best.

Hail Storm in ND: Memorial Day 2014

Upon arriving in Watford City, about two miles from the shop, still getting pounded with huge hailstones, it occurred to us our vehicles, all of which had been parked outside the shop, were likely going to be badly damaged from the storm. Then, eerily, the storm suddenly stopped and everything around us became calm. Knowing the storm was traveling in the same Southeasterly direction as us, however, and that we'd likely merely driven in front of it, arriving at the shop we realized we only had seconds to get to our vehicles before the hailstones started falling again.

The wind instantly began howling again the second we exited the badly damaged van in the shop's parking lot. After going our separate ways, a thick cloud of dust began blowing South, nearly locking me in place as I attempted to race to my vehicle on the North side of the huge parking lot. Feeling as if I was swimming against a strong river current, I eventually reached my vehicle, which was swiftly utilized as refuge from the fierce surrounding gusts. Normally, I would've entered the shop to hand in my daily paperwork before departing for the day. But given the violent hail storm bearing down on me, my first instinct at that moment was to find a building with a parking lot to its South to use as a shield from the damaging hail I knew would start falling again any second.

There was a fairly large two-story workover building, which my employer at that time owned, that was about a half mile from the shop with a parking lot on its South side. I'd never been to this building before, but I knew it was likely my vehicle's only hope. Pulling out of my parking spot, I could see the building through my side window, but couldn't make out where the entrance to it was. It was while driving around a bit trying to locate its entrance that I saw it in the South through my windshield. By "it" I don't mean the entrance. The video I attached below likely best depicts this moment.

Watford City Tornado: Memorial Day 2014

As you likely noticed in this video, I grew a little agitated about something immediately before completing this recording. What happened was I had at that moment noticed what was undoubtedly the only entrance to the workover building I had been seeking for shelter from the upcoming hail. As luck would have it, to get to it I had to drive through what appeared to be the path the twister I had just discovered was heading in. After observing the tornado a little bit longer, however, I realized I probably wasn't as much in harm's way as I had initially estimated. Feeling a little more comfortable with my location, I recorded the video attached below.

Watford City Tornado II: Memorial Day 2014

Feeling safe where I was at while filming this last video, I did notice the twister was moving North, which seemed odd to me as the storm had been moving Southeast, (although I did later read that this does tend to happen with tornadoes from time to time). Realizing that it did still pose a potential threat where I was at, and still waiting on the hail, (which somehow never did strike again where I was at that evening), I scurried to the workover building for shelter. Below is the final video I recorded of this twister upon arriving there.

Watford City Tornado III: Memorial Day 2014

After filming this latest recording, the man who sounded so confident that the twister was dissipating in this video, along with another man who happened to be filming the tornado in the workover building parking lot when I arrived there, took off like bats out of hell around the building, apparently having concluded the twister was not in fact through interacting with the North Dakota landscape that evening. Still calmed by his words, I happened to be facing the other direction observing the storm when they took off running. I turned around only in time to notice the last man hastily disappearing around the building's corner. Not sure where they had vanished to, and realizing myself now that, contrary to what the man had said in the video, it was still too soon for optimism, I made my way through the first glass door on the building's South side that I could find. There was a wooden door behind the glass door that was locked, so all I could do at that moment was stand there by myself watching as the twister in fact did touch down again while continuing down its path towards the workover building. Luckily, however, it lifted again shortly before reaching the building. As far as I was aware, that was the last touch down it made that day.

I found out later that night that it had struck a trailer court where a former roommate of mine had been living, and dropped a tractor trailer dead smack in the middle of the fifth wheel he was living in, crushing the entire center down to the floor. Luckily he was in a bedroom on one end of the fifth wheel, and his wife and daughter were in a room on the other end of it when this occurred. Thus, neither he or his family were injured. Another female in this trailer court, however, was not so lucky. Getting crushed in her trailer, she was helicoptered to a medical facility in Minot, where I read she made a full recovery. A lot of other homes that evening were damaged, and at least fifteen were destroyed in one RV Park South of Watford City, but fortunately many of their occupants had departed for the holiday weekend. Thus, no fatalities occurred, and a total of only nine people were injured by the tornado that evening. While damage, injuries, and casualties certainly could've been worse, I think it's fair to say nonetheless that the Memorial Day twister is something Watford City will never forget.

As for myself, my five minute close encounter with a destructive vortex of rotating winds on May 26th over a year ago remains my only personal observation of a tornado to date. Who would've thought that after spending most of my life on the North end of tornado alley, my one and only interaction with a twister would occur in a place where tornadoes are virtually unheard of? I guess you could say it's somewhat of a mind "twister."

Damage to RV park a few miles South of Watford City



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