It started like any other summer day for current Wadena-Deer Creek Activities Director Norm Gallant. However, how it ended will be one that he will never forget. On June 17, his life and the town of Wadena changed when an EF-4 Tornado came through town. The day prior was Gallant’s first official day as activities director, while he remained as the head wrestling coach.
Gallant and the Wolverines were participating in a summer wrestling camp during the day at Concordia-Moorhead. Gallant vividly remembers the day. Usually the team takes a quick stop at Scheels after the camp is over, however, this year they did not. Gallant said they dropped the last kid off at 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon. Shortly after, Gallant found himself in his family’s basement. The tornado struck across from his house, which he said was within 150 yards of his residence.
“I replaced the shingles on my roof and lost my trees, but really not much damage,” Gallant said. “I remember coming out of the basement and it was surreal. You didn’t know what had just happened.”
Gallant said after quickly assessing things at his house, Mike Kinney and Gallant rushed to the school to find that the hockey arena was gone. Gallant said they had the goal of getting to the bus garage to grab the school tractor to help move and clear streets. However, he was quickly told by Sam Waln, a firefighter on the scene, that the bus garage was no more.
“That is when it hit, the devastation was everywhere. As we were there, which was a half hour to 45 minutes after the tornado hit, the White Earth Tribal Command Center came and there were police cars and the Dominator from storm chasers pulled up,” Gallant said. “There was so much activity. As I went back to my house, which was only a mile away, I did not know where I was. It was such chaos.”
Gallant, an avid fisherman, said there is one thing that he will never forget. He was walking down the road to his neighbor’s house and sitting there was a tackle box.
“There was no reason for it to be there. You could hear gas leaks, sirens and people were coming out, dazed,” Gallant said. “It was a real surreal experience. You just remember exactly. I can almost tell you what kind of jigs were in the tackle box. I just remember that this isn’t right.”
Quickly after the tornado struck, the community came together to help each other out. Gallant said that will always be a great memory. He said everyone rolled up their sleeves and went to work.
“From a school standpoint, obviously, we were pretty devastated. Our high school was gone, and our facilities were in shambles, but we rolled up our sleeves and went back to work,” Gallant said. “It wasn’t an hour and chainsaws were running. I can remember just walking around the neighborhood with my saw and there would be 15 neighbors cutting trees up and helping people get everything cleared. It was the same at the school. Everyone came together. It was not easy. But we formulated plans and put in long hours, but we just put our head down and went to work. That was our whole community and that’s when you really realize what a great town you have and how that brings people together.”
Sports returns to Wadena-Deer Creek
Gallant said it was initially overwhelming when they assessed the situation involving the sports world during the aftermath of the tornado that hit Wadena. Gallant said they had their facility at Deer Creek and the facility at the Wadena-Deer Creek Elementary.
However, the hockey arena was in shambles after suffering a hit from the tornado. Gallant said, Long Prairie reached out immediately, telling the Wolverines that our house is your house.
“It became let’s go to work. We figured out what we had to order and how we could get it here the quickest,” Gallant said. “We figured out what we had to do with the gym and I would say by the Fourth of July, I felt like we had a plan in place of, we will start school in the fall and I felt that we could have sports. We had a plan of how things were going to look. We had work to do. Amazingly, our football field did not lose any light poles, but we did lose a light fixture. There were 2x4’s and shards of wood driven into the track, but we got that all cleaned up as best as we could. We did not lose a scoreboard and I think we lost a couple of roofs on dugouts. Our tennis courts were in shambles and we had to fix that. We got to work, we got it fixed and we had a plan. It was an interesting plan. We had no locker room facilities in the entire district.”
Gallant said by the week practice could begin, they had sports which was something the kids needed at that time.
“It was a sense of relief that we could do that for our kids,” Gallant said. “It was a lot of hard work by a lot of people. I remember our first football game that we had. We scored on our first play. We went 65 or 70 yards on the first play, around the left end and I remember I was in the press box at the time and I almost started crying because it was such a gratifying thing to see. It was such a great way to start the year.”
Another thing that helped in the healing of the community after such an event was the Wadena-Deer Creek volleyball team. It was a perfect season for the Wolverines.
“Our volleyball team was so good. They gave our community something to feel good about and to get behind,” Gallant said. “There was still a lot to be done, but we had that great group of kids and great distractions.”
Gallant said he cannot say enough about the group of coaches in place at the time during the aftermath of the tornado. He said they had to deal with a lot of things, which they figured out.
Gallant said it was amazing how things came together for the hockey programs after the tornado hit the Wadena Ice Arena.
“I give our hockey association so much credit. At that point, it would have been easy to fold the tent for a year, but that was never a consideration. We were going to play no matter what,” Gallant said. “Fortunately for us, the cement and the refrigeration were okay. They were able to fix that. The hockey community, not only in Wadena, but throughout the state, came together to get that going. They were able to get a sheet of ice in Wadena that they could use for some things, but we had some interesting scheduling. We had to work around a lot of things, but we were able to get our home games played in Long Prairie. We had a game in Wadena, which was outside and was cool. Those kids had tremendous adversity to just get that season in. Long Prairie was so gracious on how we scheduled practice.”
Gallant said the hockey association put in a lot of hard work to have the arena come back stronger than it was before.
“It’s a beautiful building and they put in a lot of work. There was a lot of hard work, fundraising, insurance work to come through with such a beautiful building,” Gallant said. “I was really proud that we were able to get that whole season in. That really was a big unknown.”
Dan Savoie, Wadena-Deer Creek head boys hockey coach at the time, found out about the tornado while he was scattering ashes in Finland. He said during the clean up, they pulled out a bunch of old trophies to save them for the history
“The arena never got finished for the season so we had been traveling to Long Prairie and back for practices and games,” Savoie said. “Once it got cold enough, the compressor still worked under the sheet of ice, so we practiced outside most of the year after we got good solid ice.”
Savoie said practicing outside was amazing. He said a reporter from WCCO came up and did a story on the team. Savoie said his captain, Duke Harrison, was a real good captain during that time.
“I was really pleased with how he handled everything team wise,” Savoie said. “It was a tough season not having your own home rink.”
Savoie said the team really came together during the devastating time. Savoie said it was tough, but the team made the best of it. It was a return to old school hockey, playing outside, Savoie added.
While every sport was affected during the tornado, a unique event came from it with two premier wrestling teams hosting an event against each other in Deer Creek. Gallant said they were able to salvage the mats from a gym that lifted and shifted from its original location during the tornado. Gallant said the team practiced in Deer Creek but moved the mats back and forth for meets in Wadena.
“I thought it was important to have something in Deer Creek. There had not been an event out there since 1991. It happened that year that we were really good, and New York Mills was really good,” Gallant said. “We were battling it out for the No. 2 seed in the section. We wrestled New York Mills out there and it was awesome. That Deer Creek gym had bleachers on the stage and sets of bleachers, along with the mat and folding chairs. You could not have shoe-horned anyone in there. We won the match 36-30 and it came down to heavyweight. It was so fun, wrestling in that small building with two schools that are passionate about wrestling. I have been fortunate to coach in the state tournament and individuals that were in the state tournament, but that will be in my top memory in wrestling.”
Community comes together
Gallant said it was about 26 months of demolishing a school to opening a new one. Gallant said in a real short time they were able to build a state-of-the-art building that fits Wadena-Deer Creek.
“We didn’t have a lot of time, but we put a lot of thought into what we wanted,” Gallant said. “I can just remember, not because of the physical work, but the mental work of planning stuff, you were just exhausted. You would start at 7 a.m. and get done at 10 at night. That went on for months and months, but in the end, what we have is what we are really proud of.”
Along with the new gymnasium that houses the current Wolverines, the school opened a new FEMA gym, which came from a grant. The gym is a community storm shelter, with an all-purpose floor, which allows teams to have indoor practices. The gym has batting cages, a pole vault pit and a climbing wall which came from a different grant.
“We thought about how we can utilize that place for our kids, but still make it a safe place for our community,” Gallant said. “It’s been a real godsend as far as we can do so many things with our youth sports and we have so many courts where we are at the point we don’t have to do much for late practices, which I think is good for our kids.”
Gallant said he loved Wadena-Deer Creek prior to the tornado, but the experience of working through the crisis of the tornado really cemented his feelings for the community.
“I had already been in Wadena-Deer Creek for 12 years and I knew we had great people and a great community,” Gallant said. “But, I think, that really cemented it. You really saw the best in people, and I think that was important. You also learned what you can do in a crisis and how to manage that. I don’t ever want to leave because I loved the community before and you added that and you put your own sweat and tears into something and it was interesting to see how things shook out. The pride is something that has stuck with me from that. We really do have great people. We had great leadership at the time from the city standpoint and from the school standpoint and all the entities that came together.”
Gallant said, he cannot believe that it has been 10 years since the tornado ripped through Wadena.
“I will never forget where I was, my feelings, what I saw, what I smelled and what I heard when the tornado hit,” Gallant said. “It just seems like a blink ago, but then you drive through our community, it’s amazing how far we have come, and the changes are so positive. Every once in a while I can go upstairs and look out the window above the office and you can see the bowl of where the tornado went through. I am reminded of that and I do it a few times a year. I’m amazed by the scope of it. It was a life changing event. More so than the event itself, is how we came out of it. The thing that I thought at the time is greatness is defined by how you handle adversity. When I think about that in the context, our community was great. The way we came out of it says a lot about us and a lot about our community.”