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Tornado destroys MetraPark arena, Heights stores
'Total Disaster'

Tornado destroys MetraPark arena, Heights stores

County facility 'a total disaster'

  • Updated

UPDATE 10:20 p.m.: Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said the county will declare an emergency at around 9 a.m. Monday and send that declaration to Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Once the declaration is official, the county should have easier access to funding, Kennedy said. Schweitzer is expected to be in Billings before noon to view the damage.

UPDATE 9:30 p.m.: Main Street near MetraPark will be closed indefinitely, and Billings police are asking residents to avoid the area. Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said the street is closed indefinitely from First Avenue North to Hilltop Road, and cars are being diverted around the damaged area.

There are long lines of traffic in the Heights as people try to catch a glimpse of the destruction. Driving from the north end of the Heights to downtown Billings is taking as long as an hour, with numerous police stationed at intersections directing traffic.

Iffland also said that 10 to 20 soldiers from the Montana National Guard are being brought to assist in property security around the damaged area.


UPDATE 8:10 p.m.: James Maney barely escaped the path of a tornado that ripped through the Heights today, but his front porch wasn't so lucky.

Maney said he watched the tornado touch down near the Yellowstone River across the street from his house at the intersection of Lincoln Lane and Bench Boulevard before it jumped the street and tore the front porch off of his home.

"That's all my debris," he said while pointing out a wide swath of broken wood along Lincoln Lane. "That's my front porch. The porch was gone faster than you can snap your fingers."

He was able to holler inside to his wife and three children to run to safety in the basement. Maney made it about halfway into his living room before the tornado ripped the front porch from his home.

He then watched the twister move west across Main Street - where it destroyed several businesses - and then head over towards Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

"A funnel cloud came down and tore the roof off and hung around for probably three to four minutes," he said. "It just picked up the roof of the Metra like it was paper."

Maney said that when the tornado touched down in his front yard, the winds were so strong that they bent several large trees nearby to 90-degree angles.

"I was scared to death," he said. "All I could think of was to get my kids to the basement and hope the house made it through OK."

Debris and broken tree branches were scattered along Lincoln Lane. Maney's house did not suffer any significant damage other than to the porch.

UPDATE 8 p.m. Jack Reiter was at home worrying about golf-ball size hail when he got a call from his nephew telling him that a twister was headed toward his business.

When Reiter, owner of Reiter's Kawasaki at 450 Main St., arrived at his shop at the intersection of Lake Elmo and Main Street, he found a mangled mess of new motorcycles in his display shop. Suction from the tornado bulged the garage doors outward, windows were shattered, and light fixtures dangled from the ceiling. As he moved slowly through the building accessing the damage, he found his cat, T-cat, had ridden out the tornado and was hiding at the back of the building.

The 18,000-square-foot Reiter's complex also includes a marina and ski and activewear shop in a complex of three buildings. The other two buildings were not as badly damaged as the motorcycle business. The activewear shop, owned by Jack's sister, Bonnie Yanok, had some window damage and water was coming through the roof like a sieve.

A large construction trailer on the property was thrown about 80 yards from the business, toward the nearby laundromat. On Friday, a customer picked up a motorcycle and left her Volvo in the Reiter's parking lot. There was not a single window left in it.

Chris Voigt and his wife, Kristin, were heading home toward the Heights from the West End in two separate cars. When they got to Main Street, they were pummeled by hail so hard they could barely see.

As they approached Airport Road, they saw a semi-trailer parked halfway across the intersection with cars stopped behind it. Chris, who was in the lead vehicle, moved into the left lane to pass the semi-truck. As he passed the semi, the sign from the Main Street Casino blew off and clobbered the vehicle stopped directly behind the semi.

As he passed the semi truck, he realized the truck's cab was smashed by debris. He kept on going.

"The thing I noticed the most is the pink insulation was all over the place," he said. It was as if something had exploded.

While his response was to hit the gas, his wife's response was to stop.

She and his 6-year-old daughter, Jessi, who were driving behind him, stopped behind the semi-trailer.

Kristin Voigt looked up and saw debris flying everywhere around Reiter's Marina.

"Mom, look, there's garbage," Jessi said. "Mom, there it is again," she said, as the stop-sign size piece of garbage whirled by the car again.

Kristin Voigt looked behind her, toward the Fast Break Glass shop. It was gone.

UPDATE 7:45 p.m.: The tornado that touched down in MetraPark Sunday afternoon destroyed Rimrock Auto Arena, a Yellowstone County commissioner said.

"A total disaster," said John Ostlund. "Absolutely nothing is left of it."

Not only did the tornado rip off the entire roof, but rain poured into the cavernous facility damaging the interior.

"It isn't just the cover (the roof), it's the whole structure," Ostlund said.

No one was in the building at the time.

Expo Center, the closest large structure to the arena, also sustained damage to its roof, but Montana Pavilion appeared to escape harm.

UPDATE: 7:25 p.m. Main Street in The Heights has been closed to traffic from Applebee's to Hill Top Road, and Billings police are asking that people to stay away from the debris-scattered street.

Major gridlock has tied up traffic in the Heights.

An emergency command center has been set up at Fire Station 1 downtown and a command center has been established at Albertsons in The Heights.

Police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said that only minor injuries have been reported so far, mostly from hail. The department has received several reports of stranded motorists on flooded streets throughout town, but waters were receding on some by 7 p.m.

Iffland said the department had received lots of report of flooding in residential sections of the Heights, but he had no heard reports about structural damage.

UPDATE 7 p.m.: All indications told the National Weather Service that Sunday would produce some bumpy weather, but there was no way to predict the kind of a ride southcentral Montana would be in for.

Severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings had been in effect off and on since 1 p.m., said Keith Meier, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service office in Billings.

"This storm developed right over us," Meier said of the ominous clouds that suddenly turned the city dark just before 4 p.m. "We went from no storm to storm in a matter of minutes."

Reports of heavy rain and large hail began pouring into the office. Southwest of Acton at 3:57 p.m., 1.75-inch hail pelted the countryside. At 4:07 p.m., 2.75 inch hail pelted an area 16 miles west of Billings.

At 4:24 p.m. the first reports of a tornado came from the Heights. Eight minutes later, an amateur radio operator reported the tornado had touched down.

It whirled through the Heights taking parts of several business and Metra with it. Meier said it was too early yet to estimate the power of the tornado. He said that he saw some footage of the tornado that led him to believe it ranked somewhere between EF-0 and EF-1. An EF-1 packs winds of between 86 and 110 mph.

Funnel clouds were also spotted in the Huntley-Worden area and Lockwood.

For a better estimate, NWS employees will survey the damage and other evidence on the ground. That will probably happen on Monday.

At the NWS office in Southwest Billings, .80 inches of rain fell between noon and 6 p.m., the bulk of it after 4 p.m. At the official NWS reporting site at Billings Logan International Airport, 1.36 inches of rain fell between 4 and 5 p.m. Another .88 inches fell between 5 and 6 p.m.

 Severe weather converged in southcentral Montana and northern Wyoming when an upper level flow from the west/southwest started creating weather disturbances, Meier said. Surface winds from the east and low-level moisture in place over the area combined with the upper level flow to set the thunderstorms rotating, he said.

More severe weather is in the forecast for Tuesday.

 UPDATE 6 p.m.: Several tornados and funnel clouds were seen in and near Billings late this afternoon, including one that tore through Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.

Significant damage was done to the arena. The eastern side of the arena was torn away. The roof is shredded and the grass slopes around the arena are covered with debris. Power lines are down in the area and the upper parking lot is covered with pieces of foam board insulation from the arena.

Businesses at the intersection of Main Street and Lake Elmo Drive were damaged. Main Street Casino, a coin-operated laundry and a strip mall at the intersection were hit hard by the twister. Reiter's Marina also sustained damage.

Billings resident David Meduna was dropping off cardboard at Pacific Steel at the east end of Fourth Avenue North when a golf-ball sized hail began pummeling .

He then saw what he described as an "F-2" tornado form over MetraPark, "tearing up the ground."

Although a building obscured his view of individual buildings at the fairgrounds he saw chunks of boards and siding flying in the air.

The funnel cloud appeared to be about 12 feet across at the top and narrowed into a small cone.

About 4:30 p.m., another motorist traveling from Ballantine to Billings along Interstate 94 reported seeing three funnel clouds - one near Huntley, one at Metra Park and one near Lockwood.

Heavy rain fell in downtown Billings and Heights with severe lightning.

There also have been reports of gas main leaks, windows knocked out of businesses and cars floating in flooded areas.

North 30th and 29th streets are flooded with cars getting stuck.

Water has risen in the Billings Clinic parking lot up to the tops of car wheels.

Just before 5:30 p.m. another funnel cloud was sighted near Shepherd.


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