Disaster! Winds tear through area communities

A remains of a carport that blew over the top of the library and landed on the other side of Main Street across from the museum in Twin Bridges.
The remains of an uprooted tree and broken sidewalk tell the story. M.P. Regan photos

 

A sudden, ferocious storm careened through southwestern Montana on Thursday afternoon and brought hail, high winds and significant property damage to Polaris and Twin Bridges, but remarkably left no people dead or even injured in its wake.

“The weather went from calm to pretty much tornado conditions in about five minutes,” observed Christian Coiner, who watched the storm bring down trees and tear half of the roof off his home in Polaris, where the National Weather Service recorded gusts of over 100 miles per hour.

“It was freaky — I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.” 

After leaving Polaris, the storm traveled to Twin Bridges, where it tore off several more roofs, pulled up dozens of trees and a fairgrounds grandstand, while also destroying trailers, car ports, an airport hangar and the town’s Christmas tree.

The storm also pulled down numerous transmission lines, leaving Twin Bridges without power until late the Friday night.

“About six poles got knocked down on the line between Twin Bridges and the airport,” said Madison County Undersheriff Roger Thompson.

“These were major transmission lines, not the typical power pole you see on the side of the road.”

The National Weather Service described the culprit as “a potent supercell thunderstorm” with “straight-line winds.” First noted in Jackson, the storm migrated to Polaris and then traveled to Twin Bridges before heading to Gallatin County, where it caused significant crop damage before fading.

The storm’s ferocity was nearly matched by its stealth, according to those who weathered it.

“At first, it just looked like one of our normal windstorms,” observed Felicia Elpel, who was working at the Three Rivers Quik Stop in Twin Bridges when the storm hit. “I really didn’t think much of it until the wind really started swirling and trees started snapping off.

“Then when I stepped outside, I could see a big tree and the roof of the museum had been blown halfway across the street,” recalled Elpel, who said she had to wrestle with her store’s heavy glass front door for over five minutes to keep it from blowing open and shattering during the storm.

“Some clouds had gathered over the mountains that looked dark, but not like they would hit us hard,” recalled Coiner of the storm’s arrival in Polaris.

“The clouds looked like they might bring a few raindrops and some gusts, but nothing about them made me think we would get what we got. Then we started getting some big gusts and I saw a trash can fly by 10 feet off the ground. At that point, I started to get a little worried,” added Cornier.

“I did get a severe thunderstorm warning on my phone, but it didn’t show up until after the storm had left, so that didn’t do us any good,” said Coiner, who, like a lot of people in Polaris, took refuge from the storm in the basement of the Grasshopper Inn, whose deck was covered by a downpour of hail after the winds had blown through town.

Arriving in Twin Bridges, those winds blew the roof off a veterinary clinic, the museum and carried a carport made of wood and corrugated metal over the top of the library and into a heap across the street, according to Thompson. 

“No one suffered a scratch that we’re aware of, which was very surprising considering the size of the debris that was flying around,” said Thompson, who has served as Madison County Undersheriff for eight years,  

“This could have been disastrous.”

The people of Twin Bridges moved quickly to remove most of the debris and signs of damage, getting the town back to a semblance of normalcy by Saturday morning, when most of its shops had reopened and even its farmers market was up and running.

“The whole town pulled together and mobilized and did some pretty spectacular cleanup,” said Elpel. “Trucks were being used, saws were used, someone was pulling a wood trailer with a car. 

“Everybody just stepped out and did what they could.”