By Linda Scherer
WINSTED, MN Nine total strangers, including Pastor Thomas Starkjohn of Winsted, tried to find their way in the dark, down the basement stairs of a home they had never been in before, and owned by someone they had never met.
While some might call finding the shelter in the storm luck, Starkjohn, pastor of Harvest Community Church in Winsted, calls it the “providence of God” that led all of them to safety June 17, from what they would later learn was the Almora-Bluffton EF4 tornado.
The tornado had winds that were estimated to peak at 175 miles per hour. Its path was 36 miles in length and at times, was 1.3 miles wide.
The home was just a few feet away from the direct path of the tornado, that “snapped power lines off as if they were toothpicks,” and was responsible for one death south of Almora just before 4 p.m.
“I still can’t believe how fast it all happened,” Starkjohn said.
He was on his way home from Otter Tail County, where he had been helping his parents do some work on a lake home they had just purchased.
Before he left, it had been raining and hailing so he had listened to the weather report, which said there were tornadoes in northern Otter Tail County. He figured, since he was in southern Otter Tail County, it was safe to leave.
He wanted to be on the road at 4 p.m. so he could be home on time to meet his wife, Elaine, and their five children, who were returning from a trip to Kansas, where they had been visiting Elaine’s parents.
Starkjohn had not traveled the area much before and had no idea, at the time, there were already a number of tornadoes that had been spotted.
“It was raining really hard and I thought I better listen to the weather radio,” Starkjohn said.
That was when he heard there was a tornado touchdown by Urbenk, and it was traveling to Parkers Prairie.
“I am not familiar with the area, but I did realize that I was going to Parkers Prairie,” Starkjohn said.
As he continued driving, he was wondering what he was going to do because he was in the middle of nowhere and there wasn’t anyplace to take shelter.
“It had been raining so hard and then, it was calm and I knew I had to go somewhere soon, and I honestly did not know where to go,” Starkjohn said.
There was a BP gas station he spotted close to the intersection of County Road 29 and Highway 210, but he could see it was boarded up.
“So I am thinking, what am I going to do now?” he said.
He turned to go south, and just sat in a driveway, wondering what to do next.
That was when he saw a semi truck that was pulling over to the side of the road.
“I figured semi trucks have to know what they are doing,” Starkjohn said, “so I am watching him. He is maybe a quarter of a mile ahead of me, just down the road.”
When Starkjohn noticed the truck driver was turning around in the middle of the road, he said he was thinking, “That’s not a good sign.”
As he looked around some more, he was able to see something that looked like a house.
“It really didn’t even look like a house from the angle I was at,” Starkjohn said. “I thought maybe it was a trailer. Then I saw some people running towards it.”
As he watched, others were parking their car just outside the home and running into the house.
He also saw a young woman running across the street to the same place and learned later that she was the owner.
“So, I thought, ‘People. I am going to go over there,’” Starkjohn said. “I whipped across there and I opened the car door just as the wind hit. It was hard to get my door open and I remember thinking, ‘this is going to push my car over.’ Then I could hardly open the screen door to get in the house.”
Just as he opened the door to the house, the power went off and everyone had to try to find their way in the dark.
“Someone said, ‘Where is your basement? I can’t see.’”
“I pulled out my cell phone to see the steps and the guy ahead of me was saying, ‘Keep going,’ and ‘Do you have blankets downstairs?’”
Starkjohn had only been down the basement “a minute” when he could feel his ears pop and the pressure lighten.
“I am assuming that was when the storm just hit, and it got extremely windy,” he said.
“People got out their google phones trying to find out what was going on. A gal had a laptop and we tried to find out what was happening,” he said.
Soon after, what had seemed like an enclosed basement to Starkjohn appeared to have windows.
“I saw people at that moment. Before, I hadn’t seen anyone there,” Starkjohn said.
“I counted nine or 10 people. I think nine and only one person belonged there. There were a variety of people. One guy was in his 50s, there was a business woman that was older, and another business woman that was younger, a couple wearing biking outfits, and then the young woman that owned the house who was in her 30s.”
Starkjohn stayed at the house for about a half-an-hour just to be sure there weren’t any other tornadoes coming. No one introduced themselves. It was still raining heavily and people were trying to find out if something else was coming, according to Starkjohn.
Once everyone knew the way was clear, they began to leave after thanking their host for her hospitality.
As Starkjohn walked out of the house, he noticed trees down in the yard.
Straight north, along Country Road 29, and Highway 210, for as far as he could see, the power lines were snapped off for at least a mile, if not a mile-and-a-half, south.
“Regular power poles with two or three lines, every one was snapped off at the base,” he said. “Cop cars were all going north and we found out later, all of the electrical wires were laying in the road,” Starkjohn said.
“I had considered going that way and would have been right there at the time it had hit,” he said. “All of those electrical lines would have fallen right on me.”
Taking into account what could have happened, Starkjohn regards himself fortunate to have survived uninjured. Even his car was not damaged.
“Several homes and farms were completely obliterated; there was just nothing there, just some skeletons of where the house was. Several vehicles were propelled hundreds of feet through the air, and trees were shredded into bark,” he said.
One thing Starkjohn is very thankful for, is not having his family with him.
“It takes a lot of time to get all of us out of a vehicle,” he said.
His children are Ella, 7, Emmeline, 6, Ezra, 5, Elise, 4, and Eliza, 1.
“Although, if I had them with me, I would have paid more attention to the warnings, and not been driving,” he said.
Another thing Starkjohn is very thankful for is that he saw people running to the house.
“There weren’t any people there just two minutes before,” he said.
The tornado, its path just a few feet from the house, “could have easily taken the house off, and less than a mile away, straight south, houses were just gone,” Starkjohn said.
The EF Scale is used to classify tornadoes
An EF4 tornado like the one Almora-Bluffton experienced is the second-highest damage rating for tornadoes. The National Weather Service uses the Enhanced Fujita, or EF Scale to classify tornadoes by strength. There are six classifications:
• EF0 has wind speeds of 65 to 85 miles per hour (mph) causing minor damage.
• EF1 has wind speeds of 86 to 110 mph and causes moderate damage.
• EF2 has wind speeds of 111 to 135 and causes considerable damage.
• EF3 has wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph and causes severe damage.
• EF4 has wind speeds of 166 to 200 mph and causes extreme damage to near-total destruction.
• EF5 has wind speeds in excess of 200 mph and causes total destruction.