WATFORD CITY — A 1-week-old baby died Tuesday after a tornado ripped through a Watford City RV park, injuring more than two dozen and displacing about 200 people.
A somber McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger confirmed late Tuesday the baby died from his injuries about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday while first-responders were preparing to transport him to Fargo.
Schwartzenberger said the boy, the son of Marisa Reber and Will Maguire, was critically hurt after their trailer flipped in the storm.
“My deepest condolences go to the family and to all the friends,” Schwartzenberger said during a meeting late Tuesday with Gov. Doug Burgum and state and local officials.
A National Weather Service team determined the storm that struck about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday was an EF2 tornado on the enhanced Fujita scale of 0 to 5.
The tornado, with wind speeds that reached 127 miles per hour, touched down in a narrow strip of the Prairie View RV Park, said John Paul Martin, warning coordination meteorologist.
“The damage in that narrow strip is just intense; it’s complete destruction,” Martin said.
Nine of those hurt were considered to be critically injured, and at least three were airlifted, said Lt. Matthew Watkins of the McKenzie County Sheriff’s Office.
An estimated 200 people have been displaced by the storm, said Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County emergency manager. The American Red Cross is helping the county with an emergency shelter with 100 cots and another 100 on standby.
The storm destroyed 122 structures, including RVs, mobile homes and outbuildings, in the RV park that houses oilfield workers as well as families.
“The biggest need right now is going to be for housing,” said Gretchen Hjelmstad, communications officer for Dakota Region of the Red Cross. “Many people have just lost everything.”
Louis Vallieres was digging through what remained of his mobile home on Tuesday to salvage the fire-resistant coveralls he needs for work.
He was supposed to be home when the tornado struck, but got called on a job to help haul produced water in the oilfield.
“I lost everything. It’s all I own,” Vallieres said.
His employer planned to provide housing for him at another RV park. But many others were trying to figure out where they would stay.
Heidi and Lloyd Redding were considering taking their family back to Texas after the tornado destroyed their family’s RV.
“We don’t have a place to live anymore,” Heidi Redding said.
The couple was home with their two children and had just moved their 8-month-old son when the camper from two lots over crashed into where he was sleeping.
“I grabbed him seconds before it came in,” she said.
Next door, their neighbors were stuck in the camper, with one climbing through a window and the other through a hole that had to be cut as an escape route.
The camper Danny Higgins was in rolled two or three times before he was able to climb from the destruction, escaping with scrapes, bruises and a sore back.
On Tuesday afternoon, he was searching through the debris to find his wallet. Higgins, a surveyor, had planned to leave North Dakota and go to Texas, but he didn’t have his driver’s license or his debit card.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” Higgins said.
He found his cellphone in the middle of the night because a weather alert went off — after the storm had hit.
Many said they had little to no warning before the storm struck.
The Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning about an hour before it hit, according to Martin, who added that a followup statement was issued that said a tornado was possible.
Meghan Greszler and Jason Wiler live in a cabin that’s part of the RV park and saw what they thought was a tornado forming, lit by frequent lightning. They put their kids, ages 6 months and 13, in the car and drove to Cashwise to seek shelter.
“There was no warning whatsoever,” Greszler said.
The Weather Service is continuing to analyze how long the tornado was on the ground.
“We have buildings surrounding the park that are literally not touched and some of the trailers even here at the park have very little if any damage,” Martin said.
The intensity of Tuesday’s tornado is similar to the EF2 tornado that destroyed an RV park just south of Watford City in May 2014, he said.
However, Tuesday’s tornado caused significantly more damage and injuries because more people live in the Prairie View RV Park, according to Martin.
“There’s tremendous, just intense destruction here,” Martin said.
Hail and steady rain made it difficult for first-responders as they worked to evacuate the park.
“We couldn’t see anything," said Patrol Sgt. Matthew Walsh of the Watford City Police Department.
Walsh, among the first on the scene, was covered with welts from the hail and his vest was still soaked hours later. He worked with the fire department and other first responders to rescue two elderly people whose camper was thrown on top of their vehicle.
Lt. Watkins, one of the first law enforcement officers on the scene, immediately requested assistance from neighboring Dunn and Williams counties when he saw the severity of the destruction. A total of 19 agencies responded.
“We had a pretty massive response,” Watkins said.
Any displaced residents of the Prairie View RV Park or other damaged areas are being told they can shelter at the Watford City Civic Center. Additional Red Cross staff are expected to arrive Wednesday.
Lt. Gov. Brent Sanford, a Watford City native who was mayor of the city from 2010 to 2016, and Burgum assessed the damage Tuesday and met with residents and local officials.
“The extent of the damage here is devastating and mind-boggling, with RVs utterly flattened and destroyed. Our thoughts and prayers are with those injured and displaced by this tornado,” Sanford said. “Fortunately, the community of Watford City is doing an amazing job offering assistance, providing food and water and finding shelter for those displaced. It will take a massive effort to clean up and recover from this tornado, and the state stands ready to help any way we can.”