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Tornado, winds hammer county

A tornado, powerful winds and hail ripped across Goodhue County Thursday, leaving wrecked homes, pulverized structures, downed power lines and shredded crops in their wake.

The storm levied its heaviest devastation in Vasa and Featherstone townships. Several homes were ruined near County Roads 1 and 6, but officials said nobody was injured.

"That's definitely a good thing," said Gary Fried, Goodhue County Emergency Management director.

Goodhue County Red Cross Chapter Manager Sarah Schuck said up to nine families were displaced by the storm.

According to the National Weather Service, the storm produced an EF-0 tornado, which produces winds between 65 and 85 miles per hour. Straight-line winds were clocked at more than 75 mph.

Weather service meteorologist Karen Trammell said the center received multiple Goodhue County damage reports between 1:30 and 1:50 p.m.

The tornado cut a mile-long path beginning three miles east of Vasa Township, according to the weather service. Another tornado was reported in Dakota County, where extensive damage was also reported.

Nickel-sized hail was reported at Red Wing High School, said Trammell, noting that residents in Goodhue and Belvidere townships also described extensive hail damage.

An Xcel Energy spokeswoman said 2,260 customers in the company's southeast region were still without power Thursday evening.

Witnesses reported seeing blackened skies and feeling strong winds before they headed for cover. Some described hearing the telltale sound of a freight train approaching.

"I said, 'Do you there that sound?' Here it comes," Vasa resident Jim Freeberg said, recalling an exchange with his sister as the storm approached.

Families and friends huddled together below ground as they rode out the storm. Tim Carlson and his family -- who lost hundreds of acres of crops and a 50-by-80-foot machine shed to the gale -- were among them.

"There were a few prayers going on in that basement," he said.

When residents emerged, the damage discovered above ground was shocking.

Brad Anderson, a farmer living on 160th Avenue in Vasa, couldn't believe his eyes. Siding was ripped from his house, trees across his property were snapped off and all his crops appeared lost.

"It's an absolute catastrophe," he said.

His father, Dale Anderson, said he turned the farm operation over to his son just this year.

"I feel bad. I've never seen anything like this," the elder Anderson said.

Neither had Venessa Mandelkow. The Featherstone Township resident was at home with her 4-month-old son, Nolan, when the storm hit.

She and Nolan headed to the basement after Venessa's ears popped. For about 15 minutes the storm shook the house while she clutched Nolan, simultaneously talking to her sister on the phone.

"It sounded like someone was upstairs having a huge party," the 28-year-old said.

When they crawled out of the basement, Venessa was instantly troubled by light pouring in from the kitchen area. It was her first sign the roof was gone.

She and husband Jason found the roof almost 100 yards from the house, lying in a field. The garage was also dismantled by the storm.

Despite the damage, the family remained upbeat.

"Just as long as I have him and him," Venessa said, gesturing to her son and Jason, a truck driver who headed back from Iowa following the storm.

The area near the Mandelkows -- County Roads 1 and 6, close to the border of Featherstone and Vasa -- sustained heavy structure damage.

At least two barns in the area appeared to be destroyed. Hay wagons on County Road 1 were seen flipped on their sides, and structural debris littered the fields.

Freeberg's Vasa house remained standing, though few other structures on his property weathered the winds. He lost two sheds, a garage and two bins that held 42,000 bushels combined.

One bin was completely torn apart, pieces of it stuck in bent-over trees, its other remnants strewn across farm fields. The storm also sent boards from a demolished shed spearing into the side of Freeberg's house.

He and sister Jacqueline Mikaelsen were stunned by the damage.

"You don't expect everything to go -- everything," Mikaelsen said. "It was just kind of overwhelming when we came up and saw this."

A group of Prior Lake, Minn., students tubing down the Cannon River found themselves in trouble when the storm hit, Fried said.

The group of 47 students and three adults was separated for a time and several students were believed missing, Fried said. All the students and teachers were accounted for by about 5 p.m. Thursday.

Fried urged those heading to the Cannon River in the next few days to use caution, as several trees have fallen into or over the river.

"It could be a real hazard to anyone canoeing, kayaking or tubing," he said.

Large trees blocked several Goodhue County roads following the storm. Fried said Sentencing to Service crews and county workers cleared those areas. Travel was safe by Thursday evening.

Other minor road cleanup work will continue over the next few days, Fried said.

Some residents began repairs almost immediately. While the Carlsons' machine shed sat splintered, family and friends poured into the farm, helping cut up downed trees that had fallen across their house and throughout the property.

People were seen across the area patching roofs and covering exposed areas with tarps.

Looking back, Venessa Mandelkow said that while heading to the basement was a no-brainer, she could have been better prepared. She urged others in similar situations to bring battery-powered flashlights and radios with them.

"You never think it's going to happen to you," she said.

R-E Staff Writer Jen Cullen contributed to this report.

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