When the tornado burst toward Wadena 10 years ago, on June 17, 2010, local law enforcement set aside their shifts for the June Jubilee parade route and searched the skies for the tornado not knowing the days and weeks ahead would test their skills of public safety like never before.
As reports came in from Otter Tail County, the officers and deputies were distributed throughout the city as weather spotters with a focus on the southwest portion of town. And after the destruction hit, local officers and deputies off-duty headed in to help. Law enforcement agencies and fire departments from throughout the region and state came too, including deputies from Douglas County who had followed the Almora tornado up Co Hwy 143.
Wadena County Sheriff Michael Carr said it was an “unbelievable experience” and “probably one of the most destructible things I’ve ever witnessed in my entire career” of 27 years. He was weather spotting south of town about one-half mile from the tornado path and could not see a car's length in front of him. One of the county jailers first alerted him of the tornado on the ground.
The parade and all-school reunion had brought in extra people, and the 5 p.m. tornado meant people were traveling home from work, “bad timing,” as Carr said. With power lines down and gas leaks, the Emergency Operations Center response still developed quickly in the bottom of the Wadena County Courthouse, according to former Wadena Police Chief Bruce Uselman and Carr. As emergency management director, Uselman coordinated with other departments, including the sheriff’s and fire departments.
As an officer at the time, current Police Chief Naomi Plautz was preparing for a shift. “I didn’t get called in but I went in,” Plautz said. “We all did, all of us officers.”
In the Emergency Operations Center, Plautz and Wadena County investigator Amy Lane worked on logistics and operations. The goal was to “Get that done. Make that happen,” as Plautz said, from dump trucks and rakes to officer shifts and duties.
“Later driving through the affected area it was just surreal to see citizens and people that I’ve known for years literally walking on the street with their pet and/or their children in hand not having a house anymore. And that was an image that I’ll never forget,” Plautz said.
Along with the public, the devastation and the amazing fact that no one was killed in the Wadena tornado came quickly to their minds, as Carr, Plautz and Uselman remarked.
While roads were blocked off for the public’s safety, it was also difficult for emergency responders to make it through the debris of homes and trees, according to Uselman. The Minnesota State Patrol rerouted traffic for a few weeks, according to Plautz. Law enforcement officials went house to house to check for injuries and deceased people, according to Carr.
Both Uselman and Plautz recall images of the school. For Plautz, her first view of the destruction was the school and community center as she drove in from the west side of town on Hwy 29.
“The roof of the community center looked like somebody took tin foil and just … crumpled it into a ball and it was on top of the house there,” Plautz said.
As the days continued, Uselman sought to keep people out of the school.
“(The school) was collapsing each day and deteriorating, and so that was a big piece in and of itself working with the school superintendent to determine if anything could be salvaged out of that building and basically there was nothing that was really able to be salvaged,” Uselman said.
People had to be kept out of areas in town, too, with check-ins required at the Wadena County Courthouse and law enforcement and fire department escorts to their properties. The city also had curfews and lockdowns to protect people’s belongings from looters and scammers with as many as 35 officers spaced out along the streets throughout the night, according to Carr.
“It was one of those things that we did a lot of good things of making the public, I felt, feel secure the best that we could even though … their properties were destroyed,” Carr said.
At the time, Uselman and Carr learned to “make do” with the radio communications available and the long hours for officers and deputies. Carr said he did not sleep for the first two days.
Shelter for people, providing Porta Potties and making sure people had food and water through the Red Cross and Salvation Army were other pieces law enforcement focused on immediately, according to Uselman and Carr. The support from state agencies included Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Minnesota State Patrol, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, the National Guard and State Fire Marshall Agency, according to Plautz.
“Mutual aid started coming in immediately but we had to coordinate all that,” Uselman said.
While the state aid greatly helped, Carr, Plautz and Uselman each credit the work of local law enforcement and fire departments working together for the recovery success. Plautz said these relationships are “worth its weight in gold.” Carr also said everyone put aside their egos and rolled up their sleeves to work.
“These men and women all know each other by first name and we work that way on a daily basis so it just fell together in a big incident. And that’s pretty comforting … to know that we have communities here that work that well together,” Uselman said.
As the agencies worked together, one barrier was the radio communication system, which only had three channels at the time, according to Uselman and Plautz. The three channels were local, repeater and statewide, though agencies who came to help might not have the local channel. Today the channels have greatly expanded with separate channels for law enforcement, fire departments and ambulances. The separate channels allow for smoother communication, according to Plautz.
Another part of the police and sheriff departments’ response are the tornado sirens, which warn people to take cover and find shelter, according to Plautz and Carr. While the sirens were originally used for the fire department, Carr said after the tornado this system stopped due to anxiety and confusion. An addition to the warning system is Code Red, which is an emergency alert call system through the sheriff’s department. Both landlines and mobile phones can be signed up.
The middle/high school safe room gym is another change, which can be used for any hazardous weather situations if people can safely get there, according to Plautz. The doors are unlocked by the dispatcher at the request of an on-duty officer, Carr, Wadena County emergency management director Tyler Wheeler or Plautz.
“As bad as that (tornado in 2010) was … it brought people closer together,” Carr said. “You don’t take things for granted when you live through something like that … you learn to appreciate not only your everyday things but just human life in general.”
If a tornado were to occur, the police and sheriff’s departments have plans in place, including the Wadena Police Department’s Emergency Operations Plan which includes guidance on natural disasters. Plautz said some of the plans include: warning and notifying the public, directing people out of town, sharing information, search and rescue processes, health protection, debris clearance, fire protection, utilities restoration, and a family assistance center.
“I’ve got maps in here, where’s the best traffic, where’s the best locations to have a family assistance center, where’s the best locations to have the EOC because depending on what your natural disaster is and where it is in town you have to have like plan A through L and have back up places that are available to be operational for that,” Plautz said.
To sign up for the Code Red system, visit public.coderedweb.com/CNE/en-US/C590E3CB42D1.
Tornado safety tips
*The following list is from the American Red Cross. For more information, visit www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/types-of-emergencies/tornado.
Assemble an emergency preparedness kit.
Create a household evacuation plan.
Stay informed about your community’s plans.
Don’t wait until you see the tornado to act. Listen to local area radio, NOAA radio or TV stations for the latest information.
Identify a safe place in your home: a basement, storm cellar or an interior room on the lowest floor with no windows.
In a high-rise building, pick a hallway in the center of the building. You may not have enough time to go to the lowest floor.
In a mobile home, choose a safe place in a nearby sturdy building. No mobile home, however it is configured, is safe in a tornado.
If you are outdoors seek shelter in a basement, shelter or sturdy building. Stay away from bridge/highway overpasses.