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1 dead as tornadoes, storms move through area

By Brian Bakst

Associated Press Writer

NICOLLET, Minn. -- An elderly man was killed when a tornado hit a house near Kasota in Le Sueur County, and at least a dozen homes were damaged in Nicollet as severe thunderstorms moved through southern Minnesota Thursday.

Chief Deputy Tom Doherty of the Le Sueur County Sheriff's Office told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis that the man, in his 80s or 90s, was trapped in the house when the twister hit. His name was being withheld until relatives were notified.

Le Sueur County officials planned to release more information this morning.

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The nearby town of Cleveland also was hard hit, a farmhouse was destroyed three miles north of Elysian, and there was major damage reported to the second floor of a home in Waterville.

The most serious property damage was reported in adjacent Nicollet County, where a tornado bounced through Nicollet, a town of 800, then moved east toward St. Peter, tearing roofs from farm houses and downing trees and power lines.

Several people were treated at hospitals for broken bones and other injuries that were not life-threatening.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty planned to tour the storm-damaged area today.

Nicollet County Sheriff Dave Lange said the worst damage was on the east side of Nicollet, but left only a couple of homes uninhabitable as it "bounced up and down" through town. Trees were blown down on the western edge of town.

Many of the houses along Minnesota Highway 99 in the 12 miles between St. Peter and Nicollet were without roofs, and the fronts or sides were ripped off others, exposing interior rooms.

Powerline poles lay like toothpicks alongside the road, some treetops were sheared off and other trees showed signs of damage from very strong winds.

Although Nicollet was without power, by mid-evening chain saws buzzed and generators hummed as residents began cleaning up the damage. Floodlights on the back of trucks lit the way for cleanup crews.

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Ann Wagner was one of the lucky homeowners in Nicollet. Roofs were torn off houses on one side. The garage next door was collapsed atop a minivan. The house behind Wagner's was destroyed. Wagner's patio furniture, grill and her granddaughter's toys sat undisturbed.

Wagner, who lost only a few shingles, said the neighbor behind her, Dennis Lukes, had moved to Nicollet after his home in St. Peter was destroyed by a tornado in 1998.

"This is just crazy," said Lukes, who wasn't sure what he'd do after losing his second home to a tornado. "The foundation is still good here. Maybe I'll just build a new one on top of it," he told the Free Press of Mankato.

Mary Rahm, 22, said she saw the tornado dip from the clouds, bounce back up, dip down and bounce up again. The third time it dipped it hit the ground. That's when she and her newborn headed for cover.

"I grabbed my son and went under the desk because I don't have a basement. My 5-week-old son just made it through his first tornado," Rahm said. "This is wicked."

Bob Hartel was outside near his house in Nicollet watching the sky darken when the tornado suddenly appeared.

"There was no place for me to run to, so I lay flat on the ground, and it went right over me. I got a little messy, but that's OK," Hartel told the Journal of New Ulm.

Northbound U.S. 169 was closed between Mankato and St. Peter because of downed trees. Minnesota Highway 99 from Nicollet to Mankato and state Highway 22 on the south edge of St. Peter also were closed as crews cleared the debris, wires and trees from the roads.

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The weather service confirmed three tornado touchdowns. The Nicollet twister hit about 5:45 p.m. Minutes later, a touchdown was reported south of St. Peter. The third touchdown came at 7:14 p.m. near Mantorville, threatening Dodge and Olmsted counties.

An earlier line of thunderstorms dropped hail as large as softballs on several communities south of the Twin Cities.

A hailstorm ripped through Northfield late Thursday morning, damaging hundreds of cars, trees and roofs.

Eleven squad cars from the Northfield Police Department were damaged, and police were borrowing squad cars from the Rice County Sheriff's Office, the Northfield News reported.

"Every car in the lot was damaged," said Doug Fitzgerald, sales manager at Dokmo Ford-Chrysler. "It looks like a war zone."

At Furlong Motors in Northfield, office manager Marilyn Falk said all cars in the lot were damaged, and there was some building damage. She estimated the damage at between $6 million and $12 million.

In New Prague, police Chief Mark Vosejpka said hail smashed the windshield of a fire truck and dented many vehicles.

Hail and rain also were reported in Anoka, Blaine, Andover, Alexandria and the St. Cloud area. And heavy rain fell in southern and southeastern Minnesota late Thursday and early today, prompting a flash flood warning.

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