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The F5 tornado that struck Fargo, ND on the evening of June 20, 1957 was a historic event in meteorological history.  The tornado also changed the lives of many people living in Fargo that year.  This tornado would be studied by Dr. Ted Fujita, who would later go on to create the Fujita damage scale.  Dr. Fujita would also coin the terms wall cloud, tail cloud and collar cloud from photogrammetric work done by analyzing around 200 photos from the Fargo tornado.  June 20, 1957 was a very muggy day in Fargo, and Ray Jensen, the warning meteorologist on duty at the Weather Bureau office in Fargo, felt that there would be thunderstorms that day, and he was right.  Read about his personal account of how the public was warned.

The path of the Fargo tornado was 9 miles long and up to 700 feet wide. This F5 tornado was one in a family of 5 tornadoes, with an intermittent damage track of nearly 70 miles from Buffalo, North Dakota, to Dale, Minnesota.

Meteorologists, today, would call this a long-lived cyclic supercell thunderstorm. The June 20, 1957, supercell persisted for at least 6 hours and produced tornadoes for more than 4 hours. Conventional radar data was not available at the time for this storm.  However, an Air Defense Command (ADC) military radar site 205 miles south-southeast of Fargo measured the top of the thunderstorm between 65,000-75,000 feet. This was an extremely intense, tornadic supercell.

Debris from Fargo was found north of Detroit Lakes near Rochert, Minnesota, (about 54 miles from Fargo) and surrounding areas. For its time, the tornado was photographed more than any other, with detailed film footage as well.  Many people from north Fargo evacuated the city before the tornado struck, knowing that the tornado was moving towards them.  Warnings were issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau (now NOAA's National Weather Service) and broadcast by local television and radio stations.

The Fargo tornado and the damage it produced was studied by Dr T. Theodore Fujita from the University of Chicago.  His groundbreaking paper, published in 1960, provided a detailed analysis of the event and introduced much of the tornado-related terminology still in use today.  Dr. Fujita would later quantify tornado damage into something called the F-Scale, which he developed in 1971.  Using his scale, the Fargo Tornado damage was then rated as F5.  

Back on June 20th, 2007, there was a reunion of survivors to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tornado.  Dave Kellenbenz, a former meteorologist of the National Weather Service, had this to say about that event:

“The memorial service at Madison Elementary School at 10 am was very special, and the mayor of Fargo, Dennis Walaker, eloquently captured the moment in his speech, which was very heartfelt.  His words honored those who lost their lives 50 years ago, and to the survivors who made it through the most devastating tornado in North Dakota ’s history.  The pastor of Golden Ridge Lutheran Church , Mathew Short, gave the invocation and spoke of how his church rebuilt with a spirit that was typical throughout Fargo after the tornado struck.  Recovery support also came from all over, including the Mennonites from Manitoba who helped Fargo in the rebuilding process, and words were said by John Wiens from the Mennonite Disaster Services in Manitoba .  Roses were presented to all those who lost family members. Mercedes Munson-Erickson was seated in the first row, and received 6 roses for the children that she lost on that fateful day on June 20, 1957.  She was very appreciative of all the support and work that went into the Fargo ’57 Commemoration, and sent the National Weather Service a thank you note to show her appreciation.  She would be unable to attend other events that day because of her arthritis, but she graciously spoke to the media and public about the events that shaped her life 50 years ago.
I witnessed a reunion at the service that was remarkable.  I was speaking with a nurse who was working the night of the tornado.  She was wondering if Jon Davenport, the “miracle baby”, was at the memorial service.  She was the one who treated Jon after he was lifted from his father’s (Jerry Davenport) arms.  I had spoken with Jon earlier that morning, and I brought her over to Jon.  They embraced and she explained to him that the last time she saw him, he was 7 months old.  Dr. Ev Duthoy operated on Jon that night as well, and he was there and also was reunited with Jon.

The weather luncheon at the NDSU Alumni Center from noon-3 pm was a gathering to reflect on the Fargo ‘57 tornado, and to look at the science involved in wind damage estimates and forecasting severe thunderstorms.  The audience consisted of the general public, NWS meteorologists, TV meteorologists, and faculty from NDSU.  There were about 75 people there, and all talks were warmly received.  Four meteorologists spoke, including Dr. Ray E. Jensen, who was the warning meteorologist on duty the night of the Fargo ‘57 tornado.  He issued a tornado warning 1 hour and 3 minutes before the tornado struck Fargo .  This is truly remarkable for 1957.  Even present day tornado warnings rarely, if ever, have 1 hour or more of lead time.  He is to be commended for saving countless lives 50 years ago.  Dave Kellenbenz, former Senior Meteorologist at the NWS in Grand Forks, spoke about re-constructing the Fargo tornado using weather parameters that meteorologists use today to forecast tornadoes and supercell thunderstorms.  Greg Gust, Warning and Coordination Meteorologist at the NWS in Grand Forks spoke about Dr. Ted Fujita and how the tornado damage scale has evolved through the years.  Lastly, Dr. Joe Schaefer, Director of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, spoke about the significance of the Fargo tornadoes and the many severe weather phrases that were coined from the cloud features seen in the photographs of the Fargo tornado.    

The public picnic at Island Park from 5-8 pm was designed to assemble all survivors who wished to interact and reflect.  There was a tent and picnic tables set up to accomplish this, along with a booth for the NWS where we distributed literature and brochures.  There were 51 survivors that signed in.  However, there were likely additional survivors who did not sign in.  Some incredible stories were exchanged and it gave the survivors an opportunity to interact and relive a day they will never forget.  One lady was born at 630 pm in Fargo, and she was there to explain how she was the “tornado” baby.  Another lady relayed a story how she huddled in a basement in the Golden Ridge area with about 15 people, since there were only a handful of basements in that area.  Her story was incredible.  She explained how the entire house was swept away, but everyone in the basement survived, even though they were covered with some debris.  She said the sound of the tornado was piercing, and something that she will never forget.

In talking with most survivors, I found that they all appreciated all the commemoration activities.  Many even said that it made them feel at peace to be able to talk with others who had gone through such a trying time in their lives.  Many were children back in 1957, but they all had vivid memories of that day and I believe that talking through these memories placed a positive light on a tough time for them and the city of Fargo."

Damage Pictures

Surface Analysis

Upper Air Charts

Hodographs and Soundings

For the 50th anniversary commemoration, the NWS requested personal accounts and comments on the 1957 Fargo tornadoView those here...