WATFORD CITY, N.D. (AP) — Investigators headed to western North Dakota today to assess the strength of a tornado that injured nine people, including a 15-year-old girl who suffered critical injuries, and damaged or destroyed 15 trailers at a workers’ camp in the heart of the state’s booming oil patch.
The twister touched down about 7:50 p.m. Monday at a camp just south of Watford City, about 50 miles southeast of Williston. The girl was flown to a Minot hospital. McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson said early today that he didn’t know the nature of her injuries. The girl, who was visiting an aunt and uncle, was in an intensive-care unit but was expected to survive, he said. Trinity Health spokeswoman Mary Muhlbradt said the girl’s family doesn’t want details of her condition to be released.
Samuelson said he did not know why the girl, whom he didn’t name, was at the camp but that “families do live out there.”
Eight other people were treated for lesser injuries at a Watford City hospital. The American Red Cross said eight residents spent the night at a shelter at Watford City’s Civic Center and that several families were among those displaced.
Plywood and other debris was scattered across several hundred square feet at the site today morning. Four trailers and a couple of other prefabricated buildings were still standing.
It was cool and rainy at the site and there was little activity. A heavily damaged truck was flipped over on the highway and several other abandoned vehicles were nearby. Road signs were flattened and tumbleweeds pushed up against some electrical wires.
Don Dailey, who lives in a camp about 200 yards from the one that was hit, said workers got a weather service tornado alert on their cellphones about the same time they saw the funnel coming down to the ground. He and others took cover behind a large piece of excavating equipment.
Samuelson said all those injured had been inside their trailers when the tornado struck.
National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Hamilton said two meteorologists and an emergency response specialist left Bismarck at daybreak today to survey the damage at the camp. He said the agency should be able to rate the tornado on the enhanced Fujita scale after getting a firsthand look.
“You can’t really discern that much from pictures,” he said.
The oil boom has brought tens of thousands of people into the area looking for work. Many live in hastily assembled trailer parks, known as man camps, housing pre-fabricated structures that resemble military barracks. Some companies rent blocks of hotel rooms for employees, and some workers sleep in their cars or in tents.
The camp hit by the tornado was relatively small. Samuelson said some in McKenzie County have hundreds of trailers and it’s lucky that one of those wasn’t hit because the possibility of injuries or damage would have been much higher.
It was not immediately known who owned the camp that was hit.
Target Logistics is the largest crew camp operator in the oil patch, with more than 5,000 workers in nine facilities. Company regional vice president Travis Kelley said a weather radio is monitored by staff at each facility. If a tornado is reported in the area, workers are “encouraged to come to common areas such as recreation or dining areas, which are fairly well protected right in the middle of the facility,” he said.
Tornadoes are rarely reported in McKenzie County, with only 14 since 1950, with no fatalities, according to weather service data.
“If the man camps weren’t there, this tornado might never have been reported,” meteorologist Ken Simosko said.
The growth of temporary housing also means there is more of a chance for death, injury and destruction from tornadoes, he said.
“People living in trailers creates a very dangerous situation because there is no protection,” Simosko said.
Dan Yorgason, who lives in a neighboring camp, filmed the tornado from inside his truck.
“There was literally nowhere to go,” he said. “The tornado was coming down the hill along our only escape route. There was nowhere for us to go. It was crazy.”