WEB EXTRA: What if it happened here?
About 110 miles west, along the same railroad tracks that run through Wadena, an oil train derailed last year, exploding in the countryside just outside of Casselton, N.D.
If the train had gone off the tracks in an urban center, it would have destroyed buildings and lives may have been lost. That nightmare played out last summer, when a train containing North Dakota crude derailed in Quebec, wiping out entire blocks of a small town and killing 47 people.
"I think about that every time I see the train come through," said Luke Mandershied, Wadena County emergency management director. "It wouldn't be good."
Mandershied said an average of about 10 trains hauling North Dakota crude - a particularly flammable type of oil - travel through Wadena each day. Many more contain other hazardous materials, such as propane and anhydrous ammonia.
"There's a lot more stuff going through by rail than just oil," Mandershied said.
If a train hauling hazardous materials derailed in town, the county would activate its emergency operations plan.
The first step would be to evacuate people in harm's way and attempt to contain the dangerous material, Sheriff Mike Carr said. Like it did in 2010 when a tornado ripped through town, the county would call in all available personnel from nearby agencies.
"We definitely have a lot of resources we can get our hands on," Carr said. "You hope you never have to use those things, but we have seen first hand that it does not take long to get available resources to you."
One hundred officers could arrive in Wadena within a half hour, the sheriff said.
BNSF would also deploy its own hazmat response team.
The tight knit emergency response community is well trained to handle disasters, Mandershied said. "We're as prepared as we can be."
A major training exercise later this year will include a hazmat scenario. Mandershied said he intends to include a mock train derailment at a future training.
By the end of the summer, he said, Wadena County authorities will participate in free hazmat response training offered through BNSF. Since 2009, the railroad company has trained more than 730 first responders in Minnesota, according to Amy McBeth, BNSF spokeswoman.
Because of the Casselton and Quebec incidents, "I think we're going to see more focus specifically on oil trains," said Wadena Fire Chief Dean Uselman. "There is more training being planned."
The Minnesota legislature is considering several bills to address rail safety. One would provide $5 million in the next year and $2.5 million in each of the following four years to prepare local public safety workers to deal with potential crude oil disasters. To raise the funds, the bill would increase an existing assessment on railroads and tack it on to pipeline companies to fund crude oil safety measures.
On Wednesday, Minnesota House Speaker Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) justified the assessment because "railroads are sending these dangerous products through Minnesota."
The House transportation committee approved the bill on a split voice vote Wednesday. It must make one more committee stop before a full House vote. A similar bill is making its way through the Senate.
"It takes just one of these trains at the wrong place at the wrong time for a catastrophe," Rep. Jim Newberger (R-Becker) told fellow members of the House public safety committee last week before it approved the bill.
BNSF takes safety seriously, McBeth said in an email. The rail industry, she said, has reduced hazmat incidents by 91 percent since 1980.
"We work to prevent incidents by investing in our infrastructure to ensure the integrity and reliability of our network, a culture of safety with our employees that emphasizes proper training and compliance, and a robust track and equipment inspection program that exceeds federal standards," McBeth said.
BNSF will devote a record $5 billion to infrastructure improvements throughout its 32,500 mile rail network in 2014, she said.
Although the railroad doesn't own the crude oil tank cars, McBeth said, BNSF supports tougher safety standards and is asking customers to replace older units with safer models. She said it also voluntarily implemented additional safety measures, such as reducing speeds limits, following the Quebec tragedy.
Lifelong Wadena resident Kelly Bain said she hasn't spent any time worrying about a derailment disaster in her hometown, even though she works at Orton's just a few dozen feet from the tracks.
"I guess we'd be a goner in no time," she said, chuckling. "I try to think positive that it won't happen."
It's not unusual for the rumble of the trains to knock merchandise off the shelves at the Family Dollar just south of the tracks, said employee Jen Bristlin.
"If a train derailed and rolled, we'd be done, at the speeds they go through," she said. "Let's hope it never happens."
Tabitha Stinar, who lives across the street from the tracks, said her experience during the tornado gives her confidence in emergency responders - and her neighbors.
"I know if something did happen people people would be here helping in a heartbeat," Stinar said. "It's a good community."
Don Davis from the Forum News Service contributed to this report.