Wadena Pioneer Journal and Forum staff reports, Published June 17 2011
Wadena tornado: Rebuilding from the rubble
Lives were interrupted, property destroyed and scattered, and families displaced by the massive twisters. It was the kind of event that will always be stenciled into the minds of the thousands who experienced it.
Even as emergency crews were struggling to handle the situation, people were wondering how to handle the nuts-and-bolts challenge of getting on with their lives and occupations.
A lot of progress has been made since that day, but the amount of work that still needs to be done is enormous.
More than 250 tree stumps and tens of thousands of trees in shelterbelts, windbreaks and pastures must be cleared.
People are needed to help rebuild homes, remove debris, paint homes, level and seed yards, install windows, repair and replace roofs, straighten barns, pour cement, mend fences, repair farm equipment and run skid steers.
An influx of volunteers will hit the area this summer to swell the ranks of the many that have been at work since last summer. A big effort has been planned for the east Otter Tail County village of Almora, where the first of the two twisters touched down and a woman was killed.
Remembering the day
It was a humid day – June 17, 2010 – in Wadena, ripe for a tornado. That became especially clear as the day closed in on the 5 o’clock hour.
Residents took one look at the green-tinged sky and knew a storm was brewing above, but no one could have expected just how hefty it would be.
As it turns out, there were actually two tornadoes that struck the area that day: one tracked along east Otter Tail County, and a second hit squarely in the city of Wadena – both deemed EF4 tornadoes, which is nearly as strong as they come.
Gregory Gust of the National Weather Service in Grand Forks said having two strong tornadoes back to back is unique. In the Tuscaloosa event this past April 27, a string of tornadoes occurred one after another in the same storm system, but that was not the case with the twin tornadoes last June 17.
“This one, it’s clearly two distinct storms one after another in that vicinity,” Gust said. “As far as how and why, that’s something that will be showing up in scientific literature in detail here hopefully over the next year or two.”
Of the three human causalities that occurred that day as a result of the tornadoes that swept through the region, none were in Wadena. The lives claimed by the tornado included an elderly woman in Almora and a gas station owner in Mentor. In southern Minnesota, one person was killed at a farm west of Albert Lea.
Still, Wadena experienced the most wide-spread damage of anywhere in the region.
The tornado had peak winds estimated at 170 miles per hour and was up to 1.1 mile wide. It was also a multi-vortex tornado and had a 10-mile-long path of destruction.
Picking up the pieces
Since that day a year ago, the Wadena community has been in the process of rebuilding.
The Wadena-Otter Tail Long Term Recovery Committee has been working on the enormous task of helping the community pick up the pieces. Wendy Molstad, the committee’s caseworker, meets with clients, reviews their situation and decides how much help she can offer.
The committee had raised $412,972 through donations and fundraising as of June 1.
There are currently 167 cases and $930,854 in unmet needs for the committee to handle. The committee has been able to help 127 of its clients. Wadena County clients have received $205,635, and Otter Tail County clients have received $156,850.
The disaster prompted a huge display of compassion and heart by volunteers, who have contributed 1,650 hours of labor both in cleanup and rebuilding.
Construction and repair have been performed on 22 homes and numerous cleanup sites by volunteers. Molstad still has 59 families needing reconstruction and cleanup assistance.
The town continues to be without a pool, permanent community center and ice arena after the tornado took them, though key players said they remain optimistic that these things will come.
Looking to the future
As Virginia Dahlstom works in her office at the District 2155 “Yellow House” on Wadena’s Southwest Third Street, her thoughts occasionally stray into the future.
The Wadena-Deer Creek superintendent sees a magnificent school housing the WDC student body decades from now and offering the kind of curriculum students need for their jump into colleges, technical careers and the working world.
Just a few blocks away, the work is in progress. The reality is that in another year, the district will have one of the few 21st-century schools in the state.
That represents progress for Wadena.
The tornado last summer slammed full force into the town’s brick school building, buckling walls, breaking windows, knocking out sections of the roof and exposing the entire facility to the elements.
The new school will be a grades five through 12 facility when it opens for the 2012-13 school year, and the students will be segregated into different areas of the two-story building. The two types of space in the 174,000-square-foot facility will be divided into public community space and academic/athletic support space.
Instead of steam heat produced by heating natural gas and electrically produced air conditioning, the new school will be heated and cooled by a field of geothermal pumps, a green technology that did not exist in 1965 when the school was built.
Groundbreaking was held May 6. Dahlstrom was one of the dignitaries wearing a hard hat and sporting a shovel that day. Finally, after many months, the “fun” part of the project was under way.
“It’s an opportunity to put together a high-sustainable, high-performance school,” Dahlstrom said.
The Wadena Pioneer Journal is owned by Forum Communications Co.