A happy occasion turns ugly
This was supposed to be a happy day in Wadena.
With a grand parade scheduled for 7 p.m. and around 2,000 people expected to come home for an All-School Reunion, Thursday has been circled on a lot of calendars in Wadena for many months.
Now it will be remembered for a devastating tornado that ravaged the city. At 5:10 p.m., everything changed.
On Thursday night, Wadena-Deer Creek High School had extensive damage, including having a large chunk of the Wadena Community Center coming to rest on its roof. The city's pool was destroyed. The Wadena County Fairgrounds were heavily damaged. Headstones were overturned at the Wadena City Cemetery. At a press conference at 9 p.m. Thursday, Wadena County Emergency Management Director Scott McKellep said they haven't even started counting how many homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed.
"I do have a gentleman out trying to get counts ... and I haven't gotten that report back yet," he said.
The storm caused "extreme damage" in the city, according to Mayor Wayne Wolden.
"Thank God that no one has been killed," he said.
There were 20 people treated for mostly bruises and other minor injuries, said McKellep. Of those, three were admitted to the hospital and 17 were treated and released. One person had been unable to escape their residence after the storm.
"We've had one report of someone trapped in their home, and they have been freed," Dean Uselman, Wadena fire chief, said.
Uselman said seeing the town like this is tough to take.
"It's devastating," he said. "It's just complete devastation."
The Red Cross set up at the Wadena Armory to help people displaced by the storm, which was estimated at more than 100 as of Thursday night. Tri-County Hospital was prepared for a quick airlift of survivors with heavy injuries, but it didn't happen.
"We did have one helicopter at the hospital on standby, and we had three at the airport on standby," said TCH Director of Nursing Kathy Kleen.
Wolden said there were many gas and water main leaks that crews were trying to repair, and Verizon cell phone service was down in the city.
Wolden said although there's not been official confirmation, he's certain it was a tornado that caused the damage. He made it through the storm in his basement, embracing his daughter.
"The sirens went off. I was in my basement, and I could hear the siren plain. It went, it stopped. But moments before the tornado hit, I heard it loud and clear," Wolden said. "I could hear the wind getting louder and louder.
"It sounded like a train," he said. "We just held each other. And we're OK."
McKellep said sirens were sounded and warnings were given prior to the arrival of the tornado.
"We had good advance warning from the Weather Service on this," McKellep said. "We were able to put out early notification to weather spotters and law enforcement in the area. ... It worked perfectly. It's a testament to those systems."
When Wolden emerged from his basement, he said it didn't appear the damage was too severe -- until he headed out to look around on his ATV.
"It's devastating," he said. "I broke down. I've never seen this before -- people standing outside their homes in disbelief. But their lives are there. They're OK. It's property. It can be replaced."
Wolden said many people have been asking what they can do to help, and he said the best thing right now is just to keep your distance.
"We're really encouraging people to stay away if they're just coming to look at the damage," he said. "At this point in time, we're not asking for volunteers. That time will come."
Two emergency management trailers arrived to assist the city, and were stationed at St. Ann's Catholic Church and Wadena-Deer Creek High School. About 15-20 law enforcement agencies and 10 fire departments came to Wadena to help.
Wolden credited all of the emergency responders with doing a tremendous job.
"It's put people in action," he said. "I've never seen such a well-coordinated event."
And Wolden said the town of 4,300 will survive.
"Our community is tough ... we've got resolve."