In Hugo, heartache hits home after deadly tornado

Grieving death and a loss of 50 houses, ruined town begins work of recovery

Residents of the Hugo neighborhood shattered by Sunday's deadly tornado were allowed to return there Monday to survey the remains of their houses with shock and sorrow and search through debris for salvageable items.

The death toll from the twister that raked the northeastern Twin Cities metro area stood at one -- 2-year-old Nathaniel Prindle, whose sister, Annika, 4, and father, Gerard, remained hospitalized Monday night. Nathaniel's mother, Christy, was treated for her injuries and released. Nathaniel died after being blown into a pond behind the family's home on 159th Avenue N. Neighbors found him there and pulled his sister, father and mother from the rubble of their home.

At a public meeting Monday night in Hugo, Mayor Fran Miron said the tornado destroyed 50 houses and damaged 159. Sixty-one homes sustained nontornado damage, such as from hail, he said.

Damage to personal property was estimated at $25 million.

Residents, who were allowed to see their homes and salvage belongings from 1 to 6 p.m. Monday, were told that they could go back Monday night, provided the homes had green tags denoting they were habitable and had electrical service. The 50 leveled or uninhabitable homes were red-tagged -- the sign to stay away.

Also today, the command center for cleanup efforts will move to Hugo City Hall because classes will resume at Oneka Elementary School, the school just south of the heavily damaged neighborhood that served as a shelter and meeting place Monday.

Before caravans of homeowners were allowed back in Monday, Gov. Tim Pawlenty took a walking tour of the most heavily damaged neighborhoods, stopping to pick up debris along 159th Avenue N.

Pawlenty said much of the damage was to private residences, which should be covered by homeowners' insurance, rather than to public infrastructure. Preliminary assessments are underway to determine if the losses meet the threshold for public dis- aster assistance, he said.

At a command post for residents set up at Oneka Elementary, he visited with brothers Peter and Matthew Deppert, 13 and 10. Like many residents who were away for the Memorial Day weekend , they had been at their cabin up north when they saw a TV news report that their neighborhood had been hit.

"All that stuff that got broken," the governor told the boys quietly, "you'll get new stuff."

A shattered neighborhood

In the area around 159th Avenue N., some houses were unrecognizable, while others nearby were untouched. In places, clothing was wound through boards and shingles as if someone had put them into a giant washing machine.

The twister that caused that damage was the stronger of two spawned by the same storm, the National Weather Service said.

An initial tornado ranked EF1, with wind gusts of 86 to 110 miles per hour, toppled trees and caused other mayhem when it touched down in Coon Rapids and moved east toward Blaine. The more powerful tornado, which raked a path from eastern Lino Lakes to Hugo, was ranked EF3, with gusts of 136 to 165 mph.

The Prindles' ordeal

Christy Prindle was preparing to go to a wedding when she heard hail pelting the house, said her mother, Barbara Rhea of Bloomington.

She went to make sure the garage door was closed. When she opened the door from the house to the attached garage, the wind slapped her back through the laundry room and into the kitchen. She landed atop Annika.

Gerard and Nathaniel were in the living room, Rhea said.

"Suddenly the whole house just accordioned backward," Rhea said. "It happened so fast. It's a miracle they weren't all killed.''

In the chaos that ensued, neighbors found both children -- Nathaniel in a pond behind the house -- and pulled the adults from the rubble. After an ambulance took Nathaniel to a nearby hospital, there was a tragic miscommunication, she said. The family did not know where Nathaniel was until nearly midnight, when police came to Gillette Children's Hospital, where Annika was being treated, to tell the Prindles of his death.

"It was a nightmare," Rhea said.

Lexie Baldwin, 16, who baby-sat for the Prindle kids twice a week, described little Nate as "a sweetheart."

"His favorite toy was his trains,'' said Baldwin, whose family also lost their home. "He liked to giggle when he played with them."

The next step

Trained volunteers will help with the cleanup beginning today, and there will be an open volunteer cleanup session on Saturday. Volunteers should meet at the Washington County Service Center in Forest Lake at 8 a.m. Saturday.

The first phase of the recovery will be understanding the scope of the damage, and the second will be rebuilding, the governor said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., described the damage as "devastating."

Klobuchar and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., spoke with officials from the Federal Emergency Management Administration, and a FEMA team was on the way to view the damage.

For President Bush to declare a disaster, there typically must be $5 million to $6 million in damage to public infrastructure during an incident, Klobuchar's office said.

Coon Rapids also hard hit

In Coon Rapids, where dozens of homes were damaged in the storm before the Hugo tornado, city cleanup crews spent Monday hauling trees and debris from the streets and intersections.

"There's a lot of houses with roof damage and lots of trees down,'' said police Sgt. Rick Boone.

Houses in Coon Rapids were still standing, but many had gashes in the siding, windows and roofs. Two people, both of whom were in the parking lot at Kohl's, were slightly injured, he said.

Townhouses under construction near the corner of Crooked Lake Boulevard and Main Street were among the buildings hardest hit, he said.

"People are still in their homes; neighbors are helping each other to get everything cleaned up,'' Boone said.

The greatest loss of all

Each year from 1997 to 2006, tornadoes have killed an average of 54 Americans, according to the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. Although sad for the Prindles, many Hugo residents expressed relief that the human toll had not been worse.

Christy Prindle released a statement Monday thanking neighbors and emergency responders. "Everyone involved demonstrated such kindness and compassion," she said.

On Monday afternoon, nothing but rubble was left of the Prindles' home, where relatives and friends searched for any valuables that will help the family remember Nathaniel.

Todd Hanson, an uncle of Nathaniel, described him as "a wonderful little boy with a big heart."

Everywhere, family members, friends and church members worked to salvage memories from the debris. Gerard's brother, Mark Prindle, said they found many pictures and home movies that Nathaniel's family will treasure.

"This is where men are at their best," he said, turning sorrowfully to a stack of weatherbeaten stuffed animals nearby.

"There can't be any bigger suffering in this world than losing a child," he said. "Compared with that, the rest of this has no value at all."

kgiles@startribune.com • 612-673-7707 jpowell@startribune.com • 952-882-9017 hopfen@startribune.com • 651-298-1553 jshelman@startribune.com • 612-673-7478 Staff writer Heron Marquez Estrada contributed to this report.

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