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Montana officials amazed no one died as they view damage in Baker

BAKER, Montana -- With cleanup still underway four days after a tornado ripped through Baker, it's still too early to put a price on the damage. State disaster and environmental officials, along with Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, toured the destruction a...

A tornado destroyed several homes and damaged dozens of others Saturday evening in Baker. (Hannah Potes/Billings Gazette)
Damage is seen here at home in Baker in far eastern Montana near the North Dakota border where the state's strongest ever tornado hit last Sunday. (Billings Gazette file photo.)

BAKER, Montana -- With cleanup still underway four days after a tornado ripped through Baker, it’s still too early to put a price on the damage.

State disaster and environmental officials, along with Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, toured the destruction area Thursday and left stunned that lives weren’t lost when an EF-3 tornado destroyed nine Baker homes in far eastern Montana near the North Dakota border on Sunday. Five people suffered injuries, the worst a broken hip sustained when a home collapsed on a man.

“How somebody wasn’t severely hurt or killed. After seeing that, it’s just beyond my comprehension,” Cooney said.

After insurance adjusters evaluate the damage, Cooney said he suspects more houses will be considered beyond repair.

Baker was cleaning up fast as the week progressed. Ed Phamke, of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said most the work still to be done involves the community’s centerpiece lake, which was where the tornado dumped its debris. The rest of the town looked pretty good.

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“When we actually flew over the community, it was hard to tell there was any damage at all. They’d done a very good job cleaning up,” Phamke aid.

The lake played an important role in preventing the tornado from traveling farther through town. Witnesses said the tornado stalled over the lake as it sucked up water, eventually becoming too heavy to turn and dumping everything.

There are trailers and building parts deposited in the lake along with smaller bits of metal and broken glass. Phamke said there were no signs of oil sheen or other traces of hazardous or toxic materials in the lake. Fed by springs and surface runoff, the lake doesn’t contribute to the town water supply, which relies on wells and is safe.

To qualify for state disaster aid, the damage to town infrastructure will have to exceed $80,000, said Marschal Rothe, of Montana Disaster and Emergency Services. The costs will be added up once the cleanup is comrtplete.

The storm tied the record record for Montana's most powerful tornado.

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