Damage surveys start in storm-ravaged Minn. town

Monday, May 26th 2008, 10:59 am
By: News 9


Associated Press Writer

HUGO, Minn. (AP) -- As a storm roared over his head, shaking his house and sending the family belongings flying all over the place, all Jason Akins could do was put his arms over his wife, two sons and two neighbor kids and hope for the best.

"I was worried something was going to fall on us," said Akins, a Hugo resident who went in a matter of seconds from enjoying a carefree Sunday barbecue to holding on for dear life in his basement.

Akins' house was severely damaged when thunderstorms packing large hail and a possible tornado swept through this small St. Paul suburb, destroying dozens of other homes during a devastating rampage through the north metro area.

A 2-year-old child was killed and the child's sibling was critically injured, Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton said. The children's parents also were hospitalized. Three adults and a child remained hospitalized Monday with various injuries, said Jessica Flannigan, a spokeswoman for Regions Hospital in St. Paul.

By early Monday, power had been restored to most of the more than 15,500 customers blacked out in the area, primarily in Hugo and Forest Lake to the northeast, said Xcel Energy spokeswoman Patti Nystuen.

Town officials said they were confident that Hugo will be declared a disaster zone after Gov. Tim Pawlenty surveys the damage Monday. City Administrator Mike Ericson said municipal department heads planned to meet Monday morning to make cleanup plans, and an emergency City Council meeting was scheduled.

"It's horrible," Ericson said. "The citizens are very shook and scared."

The storm that struck Hugo was just one of several that battered the Midwest on Sunday, including a tornado that killed seven in northeast Iowa.

Elsewhere in Minnesota, baseball-sized hail shattered windows and car windshields. A tornado swept through Coon Rapids, toppling trees onto houses and tearing down power lines.

The Hugo area appeared to be the hardest hit. Residents reported a tornado in the area, but the National Weather Service was waiting on damage reports and its own survey before confirming that.

"It certainly looks awfully likely," meteorologist Todd Krause said. He started a formal survey of the damage patterns Monday.

When Akins, his wife Georgia and the four children emerged from their basement, they saw a neighbor's house leveled and a washing machine in the Akins' front yard.

The top level of Hugo Public Works Director Chris Petree's home was ripped off. The house had been lifted off its foundation and slammed back to the ground as the family huddled in the basement.

"I put my daughter down first, my wife on top of her and then I bear-hugged on top of them," Petree said.

Hugo Mayor Fran Miron estimated about 50 homes were destroyed. Another 300 to 400 homes were evacuated because of safety concerns created by downed power lines and leaky gas lines.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter for displaced families at a local school but most went to stay with friends and family, spokeswoman Courtney Johnson said.

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)