After devastation struck, Wadena overcame the unimaginable and ‘experienced a miracle’
At the sound of the second siren, former Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden recalls holding his daughter in their basement knowing his town was going to see damage, but never expecting to see it torn apart.
WADENA, Minn. -- Ten years ago, on June 17, 2010, the community of Wadena and surrounding towns witnessed a force of nature that left this place unrecognizable.
The air was thick. Looming storms led the community leaders to cancel the annual June Jubilee parade. Nearly 2,000 expected for the all-school reunion were told to take precautions in the face of the severe storms expected.
At the sound of the second siren, former Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden recalls holding his daughter in their basement knowing his town was going to see damage, but never expecting to see it torn apart. To this day his mind races through the minutes after as he hurried down the street with his four-wheeler to help Fire Chief Dean Uselman close a gas valve on a destroyed home. Meanwhile his 17-year-old daughter wept on the back of the ATV as she was surrounded by devastation when it hit this central Minnesota town.
Joyce Boyne stood watching the rain come down at the school waiting for it to let up when she saw the debris in the sky. She and Terry Andrie made a dash for a science classroom. They no sooner slammed the door shut and rain and debris started blowing in under the door at their feet. The tornado had already ripped a portion of the south side of the school off.
“I remember Terry saying, ‘I think we just lost our school,’” Boyne recalls.
Ron Schertler remembers spending the muggy day in the office at Leaf River Ag. He was handling paperwork after a busy planting season and remained until shortly after 5 p.m. He along with four others were about to leave, when he looked across town.
“All I could see was big hunks of houses,” Schertler said. The roofs were being torn from homes and coming his way.
He shouted at the staff to head back inside, into the safe. It was a concrete room, the only thing in the area that they could consider safe. Schertler held the door closed as the tornado outside sought to rip the door from the hinges. When the tornado hit the school in front of them, he remembers the rocks being launched off the flat roof and pelting the outside of the safe. It sounded like a machine gun.
“I could feel when the building left,” Schertler said. Those inside recall their ears popping with the pressure changes. They found rafters were piled in front of the door when they attempted to get out. They had just survived the tornado, but a leaking anhydrous tank outside the safe could have killed them all had they not pushed the door open and escaped. Schertler is still unsure how they got the door open.
And if they hadn’t had the safe to escape to?
“We’d probably all be dead,” Schertler said.
Watching the debris edge towards Highway 10 was Tom Paper at Wadena Hide and Fur. He recalls the employees and customers squeezed into a bathroom. One customer, thinking there was not room in the bathroom, hid under a desk. All were safe, but the roof of the building ended up landing south of the railroad tracks near Leaf River Ag.
Storm chasers knew there was a good chance of tornadoes in the area and were prepared to chase the storm through town. But upon seeing the direct hit on Wadena, most stopped to lend a hand to those who were injured.
No one could have predicted the damage that took place that day. Or that thousands of people would come to the town's aid to shape it into what we see now, 10 years later.
Wolden said the day after the storm, FEMA arrived to start assessing the damage. The city had daily briefings with emergency management, the Red Cross and the public.
The first thing most people were asking was how they could help. And right away, Wolden was cautious about putting people to work until a plan of action was in place. But after streets were buttoned up and safety measures were taken, people were able to go to work renewing their community.
“I think we had about 700 people at the first meeting at St. Ann’s,” Wolden said of the first public meeting. They were ready to take action.
The community has rebuilt itself with a new high school, hockey rink, and wellness center as important assets. Homes went up and recreational areas were renewed. Despite the renewal, Wolden believes the tornado had a lasting impact on Wadena’s population.
“It impacted a lot of people, we lost population, I’m certain,” Wolden said. No one was fatally injured in the storm, but upon losing homes, some community members decided to leave town. “I fully believe the 2020 census will look different from the 2010 census. That’s unfortunate," Wolden continued.
What Wolden hopes sticks in the years after the tornado is the unity in the community that he saw in the days, weeks and months after the tornado.
“I saw political lines fall away and I saw cooperation kick in,” Wolden said. “That’s really what Wadena was about.”
But it was more than just Wadena. Volunteers from all over the region and state came to help rebuild Wadena into what we see and experience today.
“We experienced a miracle,” Wolden said.