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Tornado thrashes Buffalo Lake
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Dozens of vehicles were crushed under the weight of trees and other debris. (MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik)
Police Chief Greg Gowan saw the tornado coming - a "perfect funnel cloud - black as oil," roaring toward his city. The twister ripped the roofs off homes, tossed power lines to the ground and sent residents of this town of 770 to their basements Tuesday night.

Buffalo Lake, Minn. — Despite the mangled utility lines, debris, and downed trees, the severely damaged homes and businesses, and the smashed cars and trucks lining the streets of Buffalo Lake, townspeople seemed generally upbeat the morning after the tornado. No one killed. No one was seriously injured. And for that, residents are thankful.

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Image Trees, roots and all, were overturned

"I've never been through a tornado, but I don't ever want to go through one again," said Jenny Shafer, as she walking down Main Street clutching her young daughter's hand. She says she was forced out of her apartment by tornado damage -- a hole in the wall -- and will be living with her father for the time being.

"Thank God that we came out all right. We're just thanking God that nobody's was actually really hurt," she said.

Despite the destruction, Police Chief Greg Gowan was mostly smiles on Wednesday. "I think that's why you see me so chipper today, the day after my town got destroyed," he said. Gowan credited the town's weather spotting system for the lack of injuries. He said the sirens went off at least an hour before the tornado hit, giving everyone plenty of time to seek proper cover. Behind a row of damaged businesses, Stephan Bombeck stands in what used to be his garage-workshop. A testament to the force of the storm, the concrete block building is broken into pieces as if someone smashed it with a giant hammer.

"I'm real surprised what it did to the bricks, that being a brick structure," he said. Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped into Buffalo Lake the first thing in the morning after an aerial tour aboard a State Patrol helicopter.

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Image The town's grain elevator was heavily damaged

"There's obviously massive damage and we're going to have to do an assessment," he said. "The great news is we plan and prepare, the state does, for just these kinds of incidents and we've got the National Guard here. The Department of Transportation is taking care of road and bridge infrastructure. The Pollution Control Agency is here dealing with potential hazardous material issues. We have the Department of Emergency Management here and so we're going to roll up our sleeves and get to work."

Ed Leier, assistant director for the Division of Emergency Management for homeland security, said officials were assessing the damage and would soon apply for federal assistance for both the city and Renville County. "We'll leverage as much money as we possibly can to help this town recover," Leier said. The governor visited with numerous Buffalo Lake residents and business owners.

"It's kind of nice that he made it our here so quick. I was really amazed by that. It was nice," said Craig Roepke, who got some gubernatorial reassurance as he picked up strewn debris from his destroyed camping trailer, three houses down the street from his home.

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Image Hundreds of power lines were downed in the storm

Behind him were three banged-up semi-trucks, surrounded by mounds of a shredded garage, which housed them before the tornado.

After he's done salvaging camper parts, Roepke will begin putting his home back together. "I've got half of a roof to put on the back side. There's some along the sides, some of the minor stuff. Just a handful of siding went off, the chimney came off, and then a couple of broken windows; so it's nothing real major. I can live without my deck. That went down too."

Ken Krumrey said he watched the tornado touch down a half-dozen times from his home north of Buffalo Lake. After the storm, he drove into town and helped emergency workers clear the streets until 1 a.m. He was back at it Wednesday morning. "There's a lot of damage around town," Krumrey said. "There's a lot of houses and a lot of business places that got it."

Gov. Pawlenty is pledging to do what it takes to rebuild the town. An application for federal disaster assistance will likely be forthcoming. But Pawlenty says given the amount of damage and the potential for more storm problems, it's best to hold off on that application for awhile.

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Image By daylight, the town's residents surveyed the damage

"We're not out of the woods of the storm yet," he said. "There's potential for additional rains today. We've got flooding concerns, potentially, as well so we want to make sure. You improve your chances with the federal government if you can show damage across a broader range. So we're going to make sure we have a good assessment first and then we'll go ahead and make sure we pursue the appropriate relief from the federal government."

Buffalo Lake officials have closed off the town to most outsiders. They're concentrating on clearing the streets and restoring power. They say after they've done that they'll consider putting out a call for volunteers to help in the clean up.

Emergency workers set their sights on clearing debris from the city's main streets while utility workers cleaned up downed power lines. An Xcel Energy official said it could be four days before most of the town's electricity was restored. National Guard troops stood watch at the roads into town and directed traffic. At about the same time othe tornado hit Buffalo Lake, another touched down near the town of Kandiyohi about 35 miles to the northwest, according to the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Department. There were no reports of injuries but one farm sustained damage to some outbuildings.

The storm was part of a raging cauldron of weather that churned the skies throughout west-central Minnesota much of Tuesday night.

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Image Gov. Pawlenty flies into town

In Barrett in western Minnesota, Genevie White warned her children to get away from electrical outlets when the afternoon sky suddenly blackened.

A second later, lightning ripped through the Whites' home and leapt out from an outlet, leaving scattered burns on her 7-year-old daughter Kayla's back and right shoulder, a Grant County sheriff's deputy said.

Yet, burns and frazzled nerves aside, Kayla wasn't seriously hurt.

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Image Even objects weighing thousands of pounds were knocked over

"A true miracle," deputy Jon Combs said of Kayla. "We've had heavy rains and trees uprooted by straight-line winds this week. With the storms we've had, there's so much potential for disaster."

Severe thunderstorms hit the Twin Cities Tuesday night and early Wednesday. Dozens of trees were knocked down in a Richfield neighborhood, coming to rest on top of houses and garages and blocking residential streets. About 54,000 customers of Xcel Energy lost power, mostly in the west metro area.

Operations were back to normal Wednesday morning at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, where Northwest Airlines had 12 jets damaged during the storms. Northwest canceled 10 flights, but a spokeswoman said all flights were back on schedule by morning

The Associated Press contributed to this report. MPR's Marisa Helms assisted in coverage of this story.

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