The Har Mar Tornado: June 14, 1981

Folks on the east side of the Twin Cities call it the "Har Mar Tornado" while others west of the Mississippi tend to prefer "Lake Harriet" or "Edina Tornado." No matter the name, it was the most significant tornado to hit the Twin Cities since the 1965 Fridley Mounds-View tornadoes.

Here's how the event unfolded. The National Weather Service posted a tornado watch at 3:00pm CDT. At 3:49pm a tornado touched down in Edina about 1/3 mile southwest of the intersection of France Avenue and 50th Street. The tornado followed a southwest-northeast track that brought it over Lake Harriet at about 3:52pm. Edina policeman William Barington reported the tornado at this time. The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning and the area-wide siren activation was at 3:53PM. This activated 200 sirens in eastern Hennepin, Ramsey, and small portions of Anoka and Dakota Counties. The tornado continued its path northeast and lifted off the ground one block short of a mobile home park near Rice and South Owasso Boulevard at 4:15pm.

The path length was continuous for 15 miles over a 26-minute period. The path width varied from 75 yards to two and a half city blocks. Wind speeds varied from 80 mph in the narrow width areas to as high as 160 mph in the wider path areas. At a number of points only tree top damage was seen and at other points wide extensive damage was observed affecting buildings, trees, power lines and homes. At first the National Weather Service reported the event as three separate tornadoes, but after two days of surveying the damage it was concluded that it was a single tornado that lifted up and down at times.

One of the hardest hit areas was the Har Mar Mall area. While the mall itself escaped serious damage; other businesses and homes in the area were hit hard. The regional State Farm Insurance agency lost its roof and many windows were smashed in businesses along Snelling Avenue. Numerous homes were damaged, especially north of Har Mar Mall. In all from Minneapolis to Lake Owasso 83 people were injured and one person was killed. 20-year-old Allen Wheeler was fishing along the shore of Lake Harriet when a tree fell on him. Another death occurred during the clean up and is not counted in the official tally. A man suffered a heart attack while clearing tree debris in Minneapolis.

Lt. Gov Lou Wangberg activated 120 National Guardsmen to prevent looting of damaged homes and businesses in Roseville. (Governor Al Quie was in Norway at the time.) The largest problem was from the throngs of sightseers who drove to view the damage and caused quite a hindrance to clean up activity. One homeowner posted a sign that said: "The residents bitterly resent your morbid curiosity. Why don?t you stop gawking and go home."

The day after the tornado about a half dozen people showed up at the Minneapolis Red Cross Office for assistance. The Red Cross set up temporary shelters in Roseville and Minneapolis. No one showed up at the Roseville site and only one woman stayed the night the shelter in Minneapolis. Most people said the reason why they didn?t stay the night in a shelter was because they were afraid of looters going through their homes while they were away.

This tornado hit during the start of the era when local television stations heavily promoted their weathercasts with large staffs and considerable investments in technology. KSTP had just installed its Doppler radar a month earlier and John Dooley observed the tornado while standing on the roof of the station. WCCO-TV supplied the helicopter for the survey after the tornado.

The tornado of June 14th was not the only storm to hit the Twin Cities that day. Strong thunderstorms dumped heavy rains at the International Airport that morning. The heaviest rain from the storm that spawned the tornado in the afternoon fell in a line about four to five miles northwest of the path of the tornado with a narrow band of one to one and a half inches. Most of it fell over the course of an hour. Little if any rain fell to the southeast of the tornado path.

Ironically, a tornado of similar strength (another F3) tracked just a few miles north west of the June 14th 1981 tornado on April 26, 1984 striking St. Anthony and New Brighton and caused significant damage to Apache Plaza Mall. One death is attributed to this tornado, and this was the last deadly tornado to hit the seven county metropolitan until the Rogers Tornado of September 16, 2006.

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