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Stories by JAMES HAGENGRUBER Of The Gazette Staff

CIRCLE — The Dust Bowl taught Orville Quick not to complain too much about weather.

It happens.

The 79-year-old tries to find something positive in every natural event he witnesses, even last Friday’s storm, which ruined most of his garden, broke windows and caused new leaks in his ceiling.

“It’s nice to have running water in every room of the house,” Quick said, as he walked through the muddy remnants of his vegetable garden. “I don’t think I’m going to have anyone stealing my watermelons this year.”

Leopard frogs hopped through wet grass. Quick looked at his garden, which was full of murky water.

“It’s rained so hard my goldfish drowned. I wouldn’t be surprised if this storm wasn’t worse than anything I saw in the Pacific in those four years,” said Quick, who served in the Army and survived Pearl Harbor. “Hell, I know it was worse.”

Since late June, Eastern Montana has switched from drought to drenching rains and powerful thunderstorms. Farmers who planted their wheat in dust now watch as it is washed away or snapped by hail.

And the juggernaut continues. National Weather Service offices in Great Falls, Billings and Glasgow issued 373 severe weather warnings during the first 23 days of July. More warnings were issued for McCone County on Thursday as the latest in a surge of storms moved through.Perfect prairie storm?Last Friday, Circle was visited by the mother of all crop-wrecking storms. In the minutes before the prairie typhoon arrived, Jim Wolff was baling hay in a field behind his farmhouse eight miles southeast of Circle.

As the storm approached, Wolff could see it was powerful, but it appeared to be heading north. He hoped it would avoid his crops. Last year, he lost most of his grain to a July 4 hail storm.

The massive thunderheads he noticed as he drove his John Deere had formed near Malta, sucking up moisture from the wet prairie and gaining strength with each minute.

Moisture to a thunderstorm is like gasoline to a fire, meteorologists say. Since early July, the Eastern third of Montana has been unusually wet. The National Weather Service office in Glasgow issued 126 severe thunderstorm warnings in the first three weeks of July, five times the number in June. Wolff’s rain gauge has collected nearly 8 inches since early July — his farm usually gets about 12 inches in an entire year.

Water drops began falling from the thick clouds before the storm reached Fort Peck Lake. Powerful updrafts shot the droplets back into the clouds, freezing them into hail. The hailstones collected more water and grew in size. Instead of falling, the stones were again blown upward, in a cycle that continued until the hail was the size of plums, apples and then grapefruits that could fall through the 100 mph updrafts.

Instead of veering north, the wall of storm clouds headed straight for Wolff’s farm. They were moving fast, and the wind was fierce.

“It was just a wall of gray,” the 53-year-old farmer said. “It came awful fast.”Duck and coverWolff knew he didn’t have time to get out of the field, cross the creek and make it home. He called his wife, Janet, on his mobile phone and told her to bring the pickup truck. Wolff’s wife pulled up atop a ridge just as the winds and rain hit. They aimed the 1980 Chevrolet Scottsdale away from the storm, hoping the metal grate over the rear window would protect them from the hail, which was being driven with the same strength as a major league baseball pitcher.

Everything became gray. The truck began to shake and a terrible banging filled the cab. A gauge at the Circle Airport measured the winds at 112 mph, equal to the strength of a Category 3 hurricane. Even though the truck was in gear and had its break set, the winds had bounced the vehicle nearly 30 feet through the mud. After nearly 30 minutes, the worst of the storm had passed.

The Wolffs returned home and saw the destruction. Their roof was gone. So was the workshop. A plank had been driven through a fiberglass stock tank. A metal tower that withstood 70 years of storms had been twisted and toppled. Three grain bins were totaled, one was lying more than a mile from its concrete foundation. Hay bales weighing 1,100 pounds had been blown a half mile. Wolff’s wheat was gone.

So was much of the grain in a 45-mile-long, 10-mile wide swath across McCone County, said Julie Trower, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency office in Circle. Damage estimates are being prepared, she said.

National Weather Service officials said damage estimates to buildings and power transmission towers near Circle will likely top $1 million.

Most farmers in the area carry some level of crop insurance, said Dennis Wolff, owner of the Circle Insurance Agency, and no relation to Jim Wolff. Insurance premiums are calculated using a formula that considers estimated yield and price. At full coverage, insurance for an acre of wheat worth $100 would run about $9, Dennis Wolff estimated. Because of the low wheat prices, most farmers opt to cover only a portion of the crop.

Frank Wittkopp and his son, Curt, farm across the road from Jim Wolff. Like Wolff, the Wittkopps bought enough insurance this year to cover their basic fuel, seed and fertilizer costs.

“If it was only my crop that I lost, I would be happy,” Wittkopp said.

The 72-year-old farmer has worked his land since he returned from the Korean War in 1955. He’s never experienced such a powerful storm.

His tractor-trailer semi was tipped, while it was parked. His grain bins were destroyed. Half of his barn was blown away. A 2-by-10 board was driven through his pickup truck. His livestock was cut and battered. His fences were snapped in many places.

“Cows don’t go through so much fence like that,” he said. “The wind must’ve thrown them through.”Loss reportSurprisingly, there were no reports of livestock loss from the storm. There are, however, lots of dead songbirds, especially the remains of ground-nesting killdeer.

Wittkopp said the storms seem to be getting worse. Until the 1980s, he never lost an entire crop from hail damage. In the 1990s, hail destroyed good portions of half his crops.

Seeing his farm torn apart and crops destroyed is tough, but Wittkopp doesn’t like to complain.

“You pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and you go again,” he said.

Wittkopp said he needs to get away from the farm for a few days. He and his wife are planning a vacation to visit a relative in Washington. The rebuilding will continue, though, thanks to his son.

“I wouldn’t be here rebuilding if it wasn’t for him,” Wittkopp said. “You get something like this and it will make you think.”

Curt Wittkopp walked through the wreckage of his family’s barn, surveying the damage.

“I’m about ready for winter,” he said. “Winter doesn’t seem so bad anymore.”

Wolff has also started the process of rebuilding.

“That’s part of living here, the bad storms,” he said.

The wreckage on the farmstead will also affect the local economy, said Jess Beery, a farmer and employee with the Farmers Elevator Company. “It’s hard on everything when you lose your crop,” he said.

But mostly, it’s tough on the farmers.

“Cutting a crop is what you wait for 365 days a year,” Beery said. “When hail ruins a crop, it takes the morale plumb out of a farmer.”

Wild weather means long days at NWS

A stubborn weather pattern has kept the skies above Montana turbulent.

National Weather Service offices in Great Falls, Billings and Glasgow issued 373 severe weather warnings during the first 23 days of July. The Billings office issued 200 warnings since July 1. These offices cover nearly all of Montana east of the Divide.

“That’s way above normal,” said Steve Kuhl, NWS warning coordination meteorologist in Billings. “That’s probably the most warnings we’ve issued for a one month period in Montana.”

Of the 188 severe warnings issued in Billings, 96 percent were verified, Kuhl said. The average lead time on the storms, flash floods and funnel clouds forecasted has been 25 minutes, he said.


on the webGazette weather service

Weather Underground

NOAA Storm Watch

weather pattern behind the storms started in late June — Billings witnessed severe weather and at least one funnel cloud June 26. Since then, there’s been hail, lightning and floods nearly every night in parts of Eastern Montana.

What’s unusual is how long the stormy weather is sticking around, Kuhl said. Last year, the storm pattern began July 4 and lasted 10 days. This year, the storm pattern has already lasted a month.

The wild weather means long days for NWS forecasters, whose mission it is to “protect life and property,” Kuhl said.

Vickie Stephenson, who manages the NWS office, said the average staff of three more than doubles during severe weather.

“There have been extreme amounts of over time the last two pay periods,” Stephenson said.

Although the work is interesting, the severity of the weather makes it nerve-wracking, said Rick Dittman, warning coordination meteorologist at the Great Falls NWS office.

“There’s a gift in being able to forecast and warn these storms with a lead time and a gratification when you actually issue a warning and the storm produces weather,” Dittman said. “What’s not gratifying is that these storms impact people’s lives.”

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