No sirens or local alert system warned an RV park housing workers in North Dakota’s oil patch about a Memorial Day tornado that injured nine people and damaged or destroyed 15 trailers.
Even with warning, there are scant places to take cover in the wide-open plain.
Though such weather is rare in the area, officials say the twister already has prompted discussion among companies and others about how to better protect the thousands of workers who have taken to temporary homes as they cash in on the region’s booming industry.
McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson said some oil companies have contacted him inquiring about shelters. He said the county might also discuss adding conditions to the zoning laws, though it might be cost prohibitive.
“We never had zoning laws in McKenzie County before the oil boom and now we do,” he said. “And maybe that’s something that needs to be incorporated into our zoning – if you’re going to put up a big man camp up there, where is the shelter?”
The twister touched down about 7:50 p.m. Monday just south of Watford City, about 50 miles southeast of Williston and peaked at 120 mph. One of the nine people hurt was a 15-year-old girl who suffered critical injuries and was flown to a Minot hospital. The girl, who was visiting an aunt and uncle, was in an intensive-care unit but expected to survive, Samuelson said.
He did not release the girl’s name or the community in which she lives. Eight other people were treated at a Watford City hospital for less serious injuries.
Tornadoes are rarely reported in McKenzie County, with only 14 since 1950, with no fatalities, according to weather service data. Monday’s tornado was an EF-2 in strength on the 0-to-5 enhanced Fujita or EF scale, the weather service said, adding that preliminary information suggests the twister’s winds peaked at 120 mph.
Many who have come to the area looking for work in wake of the oil boom live in hastily assembled trailer parks, known as man camps, which house prefabricated structures that resemble military barracks. Some companies rent blocks of hotel rooms for employees, and some workers sleep in their cars or in tents.
“The tornado was coming down the hill along our only escape route. There was nowhere for us to go. It was crazy,” said Dan Yorgason, who lives in a neighboring workers’ camp to the one destroyed and filmed the tornado from inside his truck.
Michael Smith said he used to live in the park that was destroyed but moved to Watford City four weeks ago. He said he got an alert on his phone and then barely heard the sirens from town because of the wind, rain and hail. He hunkered down in his trailer.
“Ain’t no place to take cover,” Smith said.
There are no statewide rules or restrictions governing crew camps, said Cecily Fong, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services.
She said residents who live in housing that has inadequate shelter especially must pay close attention to severe weather warnings and seek appropriate shelter. The Watford City Civic Center is a designated emergency shelter.
“The individual also is duty bound and must heed warnings,” Fong said.
It was not immediately known who owned the camp that was hit.
Target Logistics is the largest crew camp operator in the oil patch, with more than 5,000 workers in nine facilities. Company regional vice president Travis Kelley said a weather radio is monitored by staff at each facility. If a tornado is reported in the area, workers are “encouraged to come to common areas such as recreation or dining areas, which are fairly well protected right in the middle of the facility,” he said.
Meterologist Ken Simosko said the growth of temporary housing means there is more of a chance for death, injury and destruction from tornadoes.
“People living in trailers creates a very dangerous situation because there is no protection,” Simosko said.
(Associated Press writer Carson Walker in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, contributed to this report. MacPherson reported from Bismarck.)
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