BILLINGS, Mont. — A tornado that ripped the roof off a sports arena in Billings on Sunday afternoon Sunday evening also tore through businesses, damaging a bar and a casino and leaving just the walls of an auto glass shop standing.
The tornado struck about 4:30 p.m. MDT as a storm system with golf ball-sized hail passed through the area, National Weather Service meteorologist Keith Meier said.
After running through Main Street in the city’s northeast area, the twister quickly moved toward the 10,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena about a half-mile away, where it hovered for about 15 minutes, snapping trees and telephone poles.
“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.
Big pieces of metal could be seen hanging from power lines near the arena, and tangles of insulation and metal debris were strewn for hundreds of yards in the surrounding industrial area.
There were several employees inside the arena when it struck, but there were no reports of injuries, Baukema said.
Billings police Lt. Mark Cady said the only reported injury was from someone who got hit in the head by a hail stone. City officials were struggling to deal with power outages and flooding from the storm, which sent about 2 feet of water into many city streets.
Wind speeds from the tornado were estimated to range between 111 and 135 mph, 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.
After a few minutes, Schilling saw the twister 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 also picked up the roof from the Fas-Break Auto Glass and dumped it into a nearby creek. At least 10 businesses along the street suffered some sort of damage.