Out just in time -- N.D. couple flees as tornado sweeps through destroying home, business
NORTHWOOD, N.D. -- Owen Dahl was looking for his house. Wife Debbie was looking for something that was the couple's top priority -- her wedding ring.
But they both knew it could have been much, much worse. If not for the phone call from their daughter, Jessica Steward, they too could have been victims of the tornado that ripped through their 10-acre site Thursday afternoon, destroying their home, three sheds, one car, along with damaging vehicles and farm equipment owned by customers of Owen's welding business.
"We're just glad Debbie and I are safe because we should have been killed," Owen said.
Jessica Steward made the call from her home in Northwood, alerting her parents that a tornado was spotted 3 miles to the southeast of their home along State Highway 15.
Owen looked outside and spotted a tornado a mile away that "looked at least a quarter-mile wide." The Dahls, who were in a work shed, briefly contemplated making a dash through the heavy rain for the crawl space under their manufactured, ranch-style home.
They believe a decision to instead drive off in a pickup saved their lives. The house and two-car garage were lifted off the foundation and sent northward in pieces.
"I don't know if we would have survived the crawl space," Owen said. "The winds sucked a lot of our stuff out of the crawl space and I think it could have sucked us out, too."
They drove a half-mile east and watched from the truck at about 4:30 p.m. as the tornado chewed up a shelter belt across the road, then the mammoth trees and power lines in their yard and then the buildings and vehicles.
He was simultaneously stricken and amazed by the tornado's force and the popping and snapping sounds of the destruction.
"It was hard to watch, yet it was fascinating at the same time," he said. "The power was unbelievable and awesome to watch. I was amazed how it tore through everything."
He didn't see portions of his house blow away, figuring it was instead ground up by the winds and scattered in small pieces.
"Thirty seconds from the time it hit, my house was gone," Owen said. "I understand some of my insulation is two miles north of here. But I don't know where the rest is."
Son-in-law Justin Steward and Chief Deputy Bob Rost of the Grand Forks County Sheriff's Department scoured through the mess, looking for the wedding ring and anything else worth salvaging.
"It's like looking for a needle in a haystack," Rost said. "You look around and it's very reminiscent of Northwood (in its 2007 tornado)."
Justin grew emotional when finding a photograph of his son and when talking about how his wife and two children planned to visit their grandparents that afternoon. They changed plans when the weather worsened.
"We're just looking for things that can't be replaced," he said.
Friends, neighbors and relatives formed a steady parade to Owen, offering equipment, muscle and other help. "We have at least a dozen places to stay," Owen said, referring to offers to house them.
Dahl had no damage estimate. But he knows they will rebuild the house and business on the same plot they've occupied for 32 years.
"We're still in disbelief and a lot of dismay and we'll have to figure out how to pick up the pieces," he said.
"But I'm 56 years old and I plan to spend another 56 years right here."