Billings tornado hits downtown, sports center
National Guard troops and local police were keeping a close eye on damaged property after a tornado barreled through two Billings neighborhoods, tearing the roof off a sports arena and several buildings.
The tornado struck at about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, running through Main Street and damaging about 10 small businesses in the city's northeast area before quickly moving toward the 10,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena about a half-mile away.
The twister hovered for about 15 minutes over the arena, which often hosts concerts and rodeos but was mostly empty Sunday afternoon.
"It would touch down and suck back up and touch down and touch down again," said Trooper Toman Baukema of the Montana Highway Patrol, who saw the tornado from a patrol station about a mile away.
Trees and telephone poles were snapped and tangles of insulation and metal roofing were left strewn for hundreds of yards — some of it hanging from power lines.
About 20 members of the Montana National Guard and police watched over the damaged properties Sunday night and early this morning, Billings police Sgt. Kevin Iffland said last Sunday. There were no deaths or major injuries, and no one has been reported missing, he said.
City workers labored past nightfall to clean up debris and devastation left by the twister.
Authorities hoped to clear Main Street and reopen the heavily traveled thoroughfare for the Monday morning commute.
Hundreds of cars were backed up on the northbound section of the street Sunday evening as gawkers slowed down to look at the mess on the southbound side.
The tornado caused minor damage at a bar and several other businesses but left just the walls of an auto glass store standing. Much of the roof could be seen in a nearby creek.
Fas-Break Auto Glass owner Kevin Massick and several members of his family picked through the shop's rubble, trying to salvage what they could. But there was little left.
"I'm in a total daze," Massick said, his face creased with emotion and tears welling up in his eyes. "It's a total loss.
I don't know what I'm going to do. Start over, I guess."
Wind speeds from the tornado were estimated to range between 111 and 135 mph, National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier said. The last time Yellowstone County, which includes Billings, had that scale of a tornado was July 2, 1958, he said.
John Schilling said he saw the tornado approach Sunday as he was driving north on Main Street with his son. He had taken shelter under a carport at a motel because of the heavy hail and strong winds.
Af ter a few minutes, Schilling saw the tornado envelop the Main Street Casino and a laundromat, then start to head south in his direction, hitting other businesses as it went.
"Then the roof came flying off that print shop, so we kept going," the 42-year-old said. "I wasn't going to stick around."
The tornado struck as a big storm system with golf ballsized hail passed through the area.
The only reported injury was from someone hit in the head by a hail stone. City officials were also dealing with power outages and flooding from the storm, which sent about 2 feet of water into many streets.