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By Kevin Bonham, Forum Communications Co., Published August 26 2012

After devastating 2007 tornado, Northwood has recovered, rebuilt

NORTHWOOD, N.D. – Kim Miller found her piece of paradise early in the summer of 2007.

Raised in Nebraska, she had lived in the Los Angeles suburbs for several years and wanted to return to a rural area.

She and her daughter, Sara, moved to Grand Forks in 2006, but found they wanted a town that was a little smaller. They liked the looks of Northwood, about 45 minutes away.

It was a peaceful community of about 950, with towering century-old trees lining streets and boulevards.

“It’s a beautiful town and exactly what I wanted,” she said the other day. She said she insisted on finding a house with a basement, adding that it probably was a reflex reaction to growing up in the heart of the nation’s Tornado Alley.

That basement turned out to be a life-saver two months later.

On Aug. 26, 2007, her new house was severely damaged when an EF4 tornado, packing winds of 150 to 170 mph, cut a half-mile swath through town, killing one and injuring 18.

The tornado leveled Northwood Public School and destroyed or severely damaged houses, businesses and churches. Agvise, an agricultural laboratory, and Gabriel Construction, both on the northeast edge of town, were among the victims.

Total damage has been estimated at about $60 million.

The final tally showed 57 homes destroyed and another 73 with major damage, though most of the town’s 460 homes had some form of damage.

Turning the page

Today, as Northwood marks the tornado’s fifth anniversary, the community is focused on the future rather than the past.

“I don’t hear a whole lot of conversation about it,” said Rick Johnson, who was mayor when the tornado occurred. “People have just sort of accepted it. They’ve rebuilt and moved on.”

Officially, the Northwood City Council decided not to conduct any kind of ceremony to mark the anniversary. But there’s something of a bounce in the community’s step.

The town’s population was 959 in the 2000 census and estimated at about 1,000 just before the tornado. It was 945 in the 2010 census.

City Hall spent nearly $9 million repairing or replacing public buildings and other infrastructure. Most of the money came from state and federal grants, but the city also depleted its $1 million budget reserve.

Between 2007 and 2010, the city issued nearly 700 building permits totaling almost $29 million.

The biggest single project was construction of the new $12.7 million Northwood Public School on the west edge of town.

Ebenezer Lutheran Church spent about $2 million to buy the old school property and build a church to replace the one the storm destroyed.

Local investment

There’s been plenty of private investment, too.

Agvise, which had about 65 employees when its buildings were destroyed, invested more than $1.2 million to rebuild. It now employs about 130, and is planning another expansion within two years, according to CEO and CFO Bob Wallace.

Northwood Equity Elevator, which also was severely damaged, invested $1.4 million not only to repair the damage but to expand.

Gabriel Construction spent nearly $450,000 to rebuild, according to a listing of city building permits.

Several new apartment complexes replaced those destroyed. The largest was a $1.8 million 12-unit building.

Guenthner’s SuperValu, which was severely damaged, was repaired, remodeled and reopened within a few months.

“By seeing that the grocery store was going to rebuild, that Agvise was going to rebuild, that Gabriel Construction was going to go ahead and rebuild, right away, I think it created a positive attitude, that we aren’t just going to give up and walk away from this whole mess,” said Bruce Uglem, owner of Uglem-Ness Co., a farm implement company, and chairman of the Northwood Economic Development Foundation.

“With the help from the state, the federal government, the county, everybody that came to the aid of Northwood, it was easier to look ahead,” he said. “A lot of good, positive people in the community felt that they needed to continue living here, and if they were going to continue living here, they needed to either rebuild their business, or whoever they were working for or working with, they needed to support that decision.”

Positive signs

The economic development group now spends a majority of its time developing a marketing plan to attract new residents and businesses to the refurbished city.

“There are no signs of the tornado downtown,” said Marcy Douglas, a foundation board member. She was city auditor for nearly 15 years before taking a job with Missouri Valley Energy Services earlier this year.

Dick Kupitz, a disaster recovery specialist with the North Dakota Department of Emergency Services, has spent the past five years working with the city of Northwood as local officials waded through seas of paperwork.

He visited Northwood again this past week, to finish paperwork on what may be the last of the state and federal recovery projects.

“As I drove around the city, the progress that has been made there is exceptional,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, a lot of regulations they have to deal with. Never once did I get a whine. It was always a positive attitude. It shows in what they have done.”

Douglas said the entire community responded.

“It’s the people here and the work ethic, and the fact that our tornado did happen at the end of August,” she said of the quick response. “Winter’s knocking at the door. You have no choice but to get things done right away. Everybody was just great about pitching in: neighbor helping neighbor.”

“Now,” she said, “it’s what holes did we leave? What opportunities do we have? What grants do we go after in taking that very proactive approach in what we can do, not only to just piece Northwood back together, but to make her a rising star?”

Here to stay

Kim Miller, the Californian who moved to Northwood just before the tornado, has settled in to her adopted community. And the community’s adopted her.

In June, she was elected mayor on a write-in vote, after being drafted for the position by the City Council.

Rick Johnson, who had been mayor for 12 years, stepped down, telling his colleagues he no longer could devote the time necessary to serve.

Miller is a disabled military veteran who now works part time as a secretary at Ebenezer Lutheran. She’s also studying for her master’s degree in Christian outreach leadership from Concordia University in St. Paul.

Her daughter is living in Grand Forks, is married and has two children.

“The tornado was definitely quite the initiation,” Miller said.

She still hasn’t completely finished repairing her home.

“It is home. I’m here to stay,” she said. “And I’m very impressed with the recovery. I think we’ve progressed really well. We have all the old buildings that were destroyed cleared up. We’ve built a new business center. Now, we have some empty lots, hoping someone will come in and develop them.

“If anybody is wondering how Northwood is doing, ask me.”


Kevin Bonham writes for the Grand Forks Herald