North Dakotans are familiar with the danger posed by tornados. The state ranks nineteenth in the number of tornados and twenty-sixth in the number of deaths. June and July are the primary months for tornadoes. The earliest in North Dakota was March 26, 2006 and the latest was November 1, 2000.
On this date in 1953, an F5 tornado struck Fort Rice. It hit at eight o’clock at night with little warning, and people had very little time to take shelter. A road construction crew took cover in one of their trailers, but they said it just blew up. They were lucky to suffer only minor injuries. A farmer hid in his creamery, but was sucked out of it and felt lucky to be alive. An elderly couple went out on their porch to look at the strange clouds. The tornado hit almost instantly. The man was badly injured, and his wife was one of the two fatalities.
One resident described the town as being “blowed away.” In addition to the two deaths, twenty people were injured. Almost every building in Fort Rice was flattened, including the Catholic Church, grain elevators and the school. The owner of the mercantile had to run his business out of a basement until he could rebuild.
Rescue efforts were complicated by the lateness of the hour, with workers combing the wreckage in the dark. Heavy rain turned dirt roads to mud, and it was hard for emergency personnel to reach the scene. Shortly after the storm, residents flagged down a Northern Pacific passenger train. The train transported the injured to Mandan and Bismarck hospitals.
The Fort Rice tornado was 600 yards wide and was on the ground for over 14 miles. It was estimated to be an F5, the strongest category. The only other F5 to hit North Dakota was the deadly tornado that struck Fargo in 1957.
Today the Weather Service uses radar and trained spotters to give as much warning as possible for severe weather. With sirens, radios, a 24-hour weather channel, and telephone aps, a tornado is much less likely to take people by surprise.
Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher
The Bismarck Tribune. “Two killed, Fort Rice Flattened in 1953 Tornado.” 8 June, 2013.
The Tornado History Project. "http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com/tornado/North_Dakota/table" http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com/tornado/North_Dakota/table Accessed 18 April, 2015.
Disaster Center. "http://www.disastercenter.com/northdak/tornado.html" http://www.disastercenter.com/northdak/tornado.html Accessed 18 April, 2015.