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Cleanup underway after two days of severe storms in Minnesota, western Wisconsin

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Severe Weather Wisconsin
Wendell Hatalla looks at an uprooted tree and other damage from Friday night's storm in his neighbor's yard near Turtle Lake, Wis., on Saturday morning, July 20, 2019.
Alex Kormann | Star Tribune via AP

Updated: July 21, 7:45 a.m. | Posted: July 20, 7:50 a.m.

Residents across wide swaths of Minnesota and western Wisconsin are assessing and cleaning up storm damage after two consecutive days of severe weather in the region.

On Friday, areas from central Minnesota eastward into western Wisconsin saw storms drop large hail and produce wind gusts in excess of 80 mph -- causing damage so severe that officials in Polk County, Wis., signed a disaster declaration.

On Saturday, a couple rounds of severe storms stayed mainly south of the Twin Cities, bringing widespread wind damage and torrential rainfall to an area already saturated by previous storms.

"No one really anticipated how fast this thing was coming in," Freeborn County Sheriff Kurt Freitag said Saturday afternoon, noting damage in the Albert Lea area in particular. "... We had more damage, more ... tree branches falling, some trees getting tipped over, dragging down power lines. ... It was pretty intense there for a while."

The National Weather Service relayed reports of a 74 mph wind gust at Rochester, a 68 mph gust at Brooklyn Center, a 64 mph gust near Fairmont and 60 mph winds at St. James as storms moved through Saturday morning. 

As of 7:45 a.m. Sunday, Xcel Energy reported about 1,500 customers remained without power in its Minnesota service area — down from well over 10,000 on Saturday morning. More than 3,000 Xcel customers remained without power in western Wisconsin on Sunday morning, in the wake of Friday’s storms.

In Rochester, the city utility reported more than 5,000 customers without power immediately after Saturday’s storms. There also were reports of downed trees blocking roadways in the city earlier in the day.

Strong winds toppled at least two semis on Saturday morning — one along Interstate 35 south of Albert Lea, and another along State Highway 60 east of Heron Lake.

The Weather Service relayed other storm damage reports from southern Minnesota on Saturday including:

  • trees down and crops flattened near Medford

  • large tree and power lines down in Zumbrota

  • widespread tree and some roof damage in Glenville

  • trees down in Albert Lea, Austin, Owatonna, Winona, Ellendale, Waseca, Janesville, St. James, Crystal and Cannon Falls

The storms brought another round of heavy rain to a region that has been swamped by repeated rounds of storms in recent weeks. Officials at Oxbow Park and Zollman Zoo, along the Zumbro River northwest of Rochester, reported that the park and zoo were closed due to flooding, but the zoo animals were safe.

There were some reports of street flooding in Rochester on Saturday morning but Ken Jones, director of emergency management for the city, said that overall, the city was weathering the heavy rain OK.

"We seem to be able to absorb a high amount of rain that's delivered to us in a short period of time and so far our flood control has kept us from a great impact to a number of homes,” he said.

“It just feels like a lot, but we’re pretty resilient,” Jones said of the repeated rounds of storms. “We’re doing OK.”

Meanwhile, to the north, residents and businesses affected by Friday's storms continued cleaning up Saturday.

In Polk County, Wis., just across the St. Croix River from Minnesota, the sheriff's office reported late Saturday morning that nearly 7,000 homes and businesses in the county remained without power. Winds gusting to more than 80 mph caused widespread damage to trees, power lines and buildings in Cushing, Frederic, Luck, Balsam Lake and Turtle Lake, among other communities.

The St. Croix Casino in Turtle Lake closed Friday night because of storm damage; officials said they planned to reopen Sunday morning.

The storms continued to cause damage across much of Wisconsin as they tracked to the east on Friday night. National Weather Service warning coordination meteorologist Jeff Last told the Associated Press that an EF1 tornado touched down in Marathon County at about 8:30 p.m. on Friday, demolishing a barn and damaging a couple hundred trees.

Baseball-sized hail hit Justin Sorensen's car windshield.
Baseball-sized hail hit Justin Sorensen's car windshield when driving south of Rock Creek, Minn., on Interstate 35 on Friday afternoon.
Courtesy of Justin Sorensen

Earlier Friday, back in Minnesota, the storms dropped baseball-size hail along Interstate 35 north of the Twin Cities. Justin Sorensen of Waconia was driving to Duluth with his family when he pulled to the side of the freeway near Rock Creek. 

The hail smashed his truck's windshield, and several of his passengers suffered minor cuts from flying glass. 

"The first one hit the windshield and it just explodes, and then glass explodes into the truck, too, and just all over you," he recounted. "We were covering up the kids with blankets and stuff so they didn't get covered with glass — but I mean, we were all covered with glass. Had it everywhere. Thank God we had sunglasses. We put those on to protect our eyes."

The Chisago County Fair closed early Friday evening in the wake of the heavy rain, wind and hail; it reopened on Saturday morning.

As Saturday’s storms exited southern Minnesota, there was some good news in the forecast.

"The excessive heat that's kind of fueled all of this thunderstorm activity is also going to be shunted off to our south, and so we'll start to get some cooler and drier weather" in the days ahead, said National Weather Service Meteorologist Todd Shea in La Crosse, Wis.

After seeing the heat index top 100 on Friday, Minnesota will experience high temperatures in the 70s and low 80s over the next several days.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.