North Dakota’s Man-Made Tornado

If you’re going to get hurt in a North Dakota man camp you’d better make sure it’s by a tornado.

In fact, when a 120-miles per hour twister tore through a group of homes on Memorial Day making national news, it was probably the first time most Americans had heard the words “man camp”.

Some kind of exotic preserve? No. A man camp is what they’re calling the hastily assembled trailer parks that house workers, mostly men, who’ve come to North Dakota looking for good paying jobs in the oil fields.

Some man camps resemble military barracks, with row upon row of identikit homes. Others look like something the wind actually blew in: clustered trailers, trucks and cars in someone’s scrubby back yard. On Memorial Day the tornado that bore down on a camp south of Watford City pummeled residents’ only escape. “There’s nowhere to go,” said one breathless guy who captured the whole thing on his cellphone.

He was lucky. The twister left nine wounded, 15 RVs rubble and an unnamed 15 year-old girl in hospital with what were described as critical injuries. Now county officials and oil company guys are discussing how to make life safer for man camp dwellers. But how about making the Bakken region safer for everybody?

Take homelessness, since 2010, MacKenzie County, where the tornado hit, has seen its population rise 72 percent. Housing was scarce before the boom, now workers are sleeping in cars even tents. Have you seen North Dakota in winter?

Sitting at a casino bar on the Fort Berthold reservation this month, one oil rig worker kindly listed to me the places close-by, where women, as he put it, would have to be “crazy” to enter. The casino was fine, he said, until after midnight.

I could always go down to the local drive-through liquor store. Are you ever afraid to sell to a person behind the wheel, I asked the sales clerk at one of those. Sure I’m afraid, the young man said, but it’s not worth the fight. “I sell and I pray.” Not reassuring.

To see a daily slide show of truck and oil rig wrecks go to Bakken Oilfield Fail of the Day on Facebook. And bear in mind, the Bakken oil is the especially flammable variety.

Much of the Bakken oil lies beneath tribal land. The US Attorney’s office has just announced an initiative to address the rise of violence against tribal women, but so far the data’s hard to come by. Cedar Gillette, a former domestic violence counselor in New Town on the Ft. Berthold Reservation told me the hotline is overwhelmed. Native women are especially vulnerable she said, because, like the land, they’re taken for granted and there’s little accountability. Sometimes it takes police hours to reach women in the camps because they don’t know where the man camps are.

We know a lot about the tornado now; its speed, its route, its likely recurrence, and local officials are responding rapidly.

Seven years on, why is it taking so long for officials to respond to the man-made tornado that’s hit North Dakota?

Leave a comment