Severe hailstorm rakes Lovell and beyond

“It felt like being shot.”

That’s what Leonard Faber described the sensation as. 

He was out on his property on Lane 11.5, July 26, closing up his shop and attending to his two German Shepherds. The sky had darkened quickly and the winds had picked up. He heard some thumping on top of his shop’s roof. 

And then something violently collided into his right shoulder. 

“I thought someone actually shot me, or at least threw a real big rock at me,” Faber said. “When I came

This photo of a car covered by tree limbs on Oregon Avenue in Lovell was actually taken Friday morning following a partial cleanup of a tree blocking the street Thursday night. Scenes like this were repeated all over town in the wake of the hailstorm.
David Peck photo

into the house afterwards, sure enough, there was a real big welt on my shoulder. Like I was hit with a fist.”

But that would be 25 minutes later. He would ride out the storm after quickly running into his shop.

The hail that struck Faber’s shoulder was the beginning downpourings of what seems to be a once-in-a-100 years event. 

Chris Hattings, who works in the Riverton branch of the National Weather Service, is only working off of seven years of experience in the area, but it’s the biggest storm he has ever seen in North Big Horn County. Les Tippetts has been here for his whole life, a span of 70 years, and it’s the biggest storm he’s ever seen in the Lovell summer months. 

Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn said he’s “never seen anything like it.”

Lovell Fire Chief Jim Minchow called it the biggest emergency event since the “big 1987 train wreck,” but that wreck wasn’t a citywide emergency, Thursday night’s storm was. 

Lee and April Christensen saw the storm coming from their home on the Cannery Road west of Lovell.

“We were on the porch, and it looked like a funnel cloud,” April said. “Then all of the clouds just sucked up. It was an eerie, dark gray/black cloud, and the white clouds to the side got sucked up, too. I said, ‘That’s not good,’ and about two minutes later it hit.”

A co-owner of Queen Bee Gardens April said a friend in the Frannie area saw three funnel clouds Thursday evening.

The Christensens spent the next morning helping fellow businesses by sweeping up glass from sidewalks in front of broken windows.

The National Weather Service issued a storm warning for the local area at 6:17, Hattings said, and by 6:35 Lovell was hit with at least 62 mile per hour winds and hail the size of golf balls. The hail riddled vinyl siding with holes and destroyed windows and windshields. The wind uprooted trees. Some of the town was left without electricity overnight as over thirty power lines were taken down in the storm, according to Minchow. Fire sprouted up throughout Lovell as power came back on before being put out quickly.

The storm spanned from the border of Montana to Hyattville, Hattings said, and hit Cowley, Deaver and Byron, but Lovell was hit the worst.

It was caused, Hattings said, by the interaction of a jet stream, or a ribbon of very fast moving winds in the lower atmosphere, and a storm front that formed above it. What resulted was  “what you could call a very, very severe thunderstorm,” Hattings said. 

Sharon and David Wagner, at 150 E. 2nd Street, saw their siding torn to shreds, and the majority of their double paned windows were shattered. They weren’t outside when the storm hit, but the interior of their house soon became a whirlwind of hail and flying glass. 

“I threw my dogs in the center bathroom and ducked for cover,” Sharon said. “Hail and glass went clear through the entire house.”

Nichole Bunn, who rents a house across from the Western Sugar factory, had her living room window destroyed by hail, spreading glass shards from the living room to her bedroom. The hail splintered her truck’s windshield as well. 

But the most damaging part of the storm was the effect on her children, one of whom is a year and a half, the other four. 

“Every time it rains, they scream and cry and tell me the monsters are going to get them,” Bunn said. “That’s what they thought the hail was. It’s horrible. I don’t ever want to go through that again.”

For those who own their own property, like Caitlin Aagard on Highway 32, the damage is more than just psychological. Aagard and her three children, aged 4, 3 and 1, were settling down to watch the movie, before they noticed the wind pick up. A few pallets, a tarp and the kid’s play set suddenly blew across the yard. 

“The hail started and broke through the window,” Aagard said. “It didn’t even take a second for the rain and hail to soak the floors.”

Aagard put the children in the bathtub to wait out the storm. 

The three windows that shattered were the extent of the damage for Aagard, but the family is already recovering from a fire that broke out in the household last May. It leaves them without the funds to replace the windows for the time being.  

“We’ll just make due with the Tyvek for now,” Aagard said.

By far, the most significant damages were not to households, though, but to crops throughout the local area. 

Western Sugar Cooperative’s local agronomist Mark Bjornstead said eight percent of their total crops were hit by hail Thursday night. Due to beets being a root plant, most of the crop survived, but Bjornstead said the fields damaged may lose up to ten percent of their total output. 

Fields of barley and wheat fared much worse. 

Randy Graham confirmed that the 30-acre cornfield he leases to Charles Hessenthaler off highway 310 has been entirely decimated. 

Casey Crosby, who owns a farm outside of Cowley, grows what “everyone else grows”, barley, beets, and wheat. All the important things survived the storm, Crosby said, his livestock and family all came out uninjured. 

But in 15 minutes, his entire crop suffered a “complete loss”. An entire summer of work and profit was gone.

“There’s not one stem of grain standing anywhere,” Crosby said. “My sugar beets may grow back, it’s questionable, but they definitely won’t be worth much.”

They had no warning, Crosby said. Ten minutes before the storm, himself and his children were irrigating the property, and they saw the storm.  That was all the warning they had. 

“You just stood there in amazement,” Crosby said. “I’ve been hailed on a lot over the years, I’ve never seen something so completely destructive.”

For Crosby, despite insurance, the loss will be in the hundreds of thousands.  It’s the same for farmers throughout the area, Crosby said. Low interest loans and federal aid may be coming, but it won’t be enough to cover what was lost.

“With agriculture you spend all spring and summer spending your money, and then in August and the fall (you bring in profits), and there will be nothing to replace it. I will have to roll this over and spend the next several years paying on it,” Crosby said. “The thing about agriculture is the margins aren’t big enough to step out and get on this. Right now agriculture is a tough spot. We have so much trouble with our sugar beets, (and) corn prices are down. Now you have to shoulder this.

“Low interest loans may be a rope to hang onto, but it’s not going to be something that makes everything go away,” Crosby said. “…I’d rather have had my house wiped out.”

What’s giving the Crosbys comfort is the community support and the grit and determination to keep going. Crosby said while at Pioneer Days, they found a rusted out sign that used to be located at a Texas ranch. The quote on it has been stuck in his head for days, hesaid. 

““Burned out by drought, drowned out by floodwater, eaten out by jackrabbits, pounded out by hail. We’re still here,” the sign reads.

“And we are,” Crosby said.

By Ryan Fitzmaurice