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'It Looked Like A War Zone': 40 Years Ago, Tornado Tore From Lake Harriet To Har Mar Mall

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- Nearly 40 years ago, the Twin Cities was hit by a tornado of epic proportions.

On June 14, 1981, the Lake Harriet/Har Mar tornado touched down in Edina on a Sunday afternoon.

It then created a path of destruction through Minneapolis and up into Roseville.

1981 Twin Cities tornado
(credit: CBS)

Eighty-three people were hurt and one person was killed.

Even by severe weather standards, this F-3 tornado hit quickly and with a purpose. With wind speeds reaching 160 miles an hour, it moved 15 miles across the Twin Cities. A 9-year-old boy was hospitalized after being flushed down a culvert. A man jogging around Lake Harriet was hit by a flying tree limb.

"I went down on both knees and I tried to get up and I couldn't get up. I laid there for about a half an hour until the ambulance came," said Charles Arthur.

The tornado initially touched down near 50th and France in Edina. The marquee on the movie theater was one of the first casualties.

"Definitely that's the worst storm I've ever seen," said Bill Barington.

Barington is a retired Edina police officer. He was the first to call in the storm after he saw strong winds hit an apartment building. It's a call he hopes saved lives.

"I noticed the roof started coming off and the debris started coming over the ramp and hitting my squad, damaging it. Breaking windows and headlights," said Barington. "Maybe the best way to describe it is it just looked like a war zone."

For people in Minneapolis, it's the Lake Harriet tornado. For people in Roseville, it's the Har Mar tornado. And even though the lake and mall are about 15 miles apart, the storm connected them in more ways than one.

"It was a spectacle," said Kenny Blumenfeld, senior climatologist with the Department of Natural Resources. "It legendarily dropped fish from Lake Harriet into the Har Mar Target parking lot."

Blumenfeld was a kid when the tornado touched down just blocks from his home. Another climatologist in 1981 was so fascinated with the storm that he went out of his way to map it.

"He actually walked the entire damaged path. From Edina, through Minneapolis, and into Roseville," said Blumenfeld.

Forty years later the tornado still serves as a reminder of just how destructive and devastating Mother Nature can be.

"People just flocked into Edina, Minneapolis and especially Roseville to see the damage ... You could see the damage for weeks and even months afterwards as it tore through houses and neighborhoods in south Minneapolis right up into Roseville," said Blumenfeld. "People like me who grew up remembering it have a lot of stories and we've been talking about it a lot. It definitely left an imprint on the city."

One-hundred and twenty National Guard members were called in after the storm to prevent looting of damaged homes and businesses in Roseville.

It's estimated that the tornado was on the ground for about 26 minutes and at one point it lifted over the University of Minnesota without doing damage.

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