Hugo tornado: Signs of hope emerge amid the ruins

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES, BILL MCAULIFFE and PATRICE RELERFORD • , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 27, 2008 - 11:46 PM

Insurance checks began to reach homeowners as neighbors pitched in to help recover belongings buried in the wreckage.

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Family friend Gerilynne Wood, rear, embraced Katie, left, and Nichole Clarkin and their mother, Colleen, Tuesday outside what was left of the Clarkin home in Hugo. The house was among nearly 50 demolished by Sunday’s tornado. Scores of homes were seriously damaged.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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A small army of insurance adjusters swept into Hugo's tornado-damaged neighborhoods Tuesday to hand out checks to families who in some cases lost everything, while Mayor Fran Miron lauded the first signs of recovery.

"There are important messages here from the families that they can send out to Minnesota and the world," said Miron, who choked up as he described neighbors who descended on his farm east of Hugo to repair damaged buildings and fences and help with his dairy herd. "You see that new growth. You see people moving back into their houses and starting to rebuild."

The insurance people came in waves as claims soared in cities from Hugo west to Coon Rapids. State Farm, one of many companies going door to door in Hugo, found 43 houses that qualified for "severity" claims, meaning they were total losses, according to State Farm spokeswoman Missy Youmans. In addition, the company was taking claims in the broader area hit by Sunday's hailstorm, including Coon Rapids.

Miron acknowledged that some residents in his north Washington County city have questioned whether the tornado-damaged houses had been built strongly enough to withstand significant wind damage. The city found the houses, most of which were built in 2000, complied with its building code, he said.

But National Weather Service officials who toured the area said many homes had a design that made them particularly vulnerable to damage from tornadoes and high winds, including a broad attached garage jutting out in front.

Bill Rose, a research architect with the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, agreed. "The garage door is usually the first thing to go, and that can create a pathway for winds through the house," he said.

At a minimum, Minnesota homes are required to withstand a three-second gust of wind of 90 miles per hour, said James Honerman of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. But that standard would not make homes strong enough to have withstood Sunday's tornado.

"It's just mind-boggling what a tornado and nature can do," said Scott Olmstead, who built a house owned by Dan and Tina Roeser, as well as 32 others in the damage zone.

On Tuesday, the Roesers' American Family Insurance agent gave them a check for $302,000 to replace their house. The remaining walls tilt at crazy angles, and the house bears a red tag, which means inspectors have determined it's structurally unsafe.

Down the street, Farmers Insurance gave $10,000 to Terry and Colleen Clarkin "to get us back on our feet," Terry Clarkin said, and another check for $324,000 to rebuild. They consider themselves fortunate because they were not at home when the tornado hit.

The Clarkins and the Roesers said they plan to rebuild on the same lots once the wreckage is hauled away.

Youmans cautioned residents to take their time choosing contractors, to make sure they're licensed and established, and to get references. "If you're feeling pressure, step away," she advised.

Christina Montgomery, a claims adjuster for State Farm, said she's finding an invincible spirit among homeowners despite their losses.

"A lot of people, unless they're homeless to the ground, say 'You know, our kids are OK, we're OK.' How amazing this community is," she said.

Mulling safety rooms

Safety advocates have been promoting the installation of reinforced "safe rooms" in homes, which have been proven to provide protection in tornadoes. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has provided several million dollars in rebates to homeowners in Oklahoma to build safe rooms; 6,000 were funded between 1999 and 2003.

Safe rooms might be able to protect homes against one degree of tornado damage, Rose said. That means a home hit by a tornado rated as an EF3 by the National Weather Service would sustain EF2 damage. But the expense of tornado protection tends to outweigh the risk, he added.

Sounding off about sirens

At a community meeting Tuesday night at Oneka Elementary School attended by about 100 people, some residents said sirens should have stayed on longer.

The city has five emergency sirens, three of which cover the damaged neighborhood, and all were working and heard by residents, Miron said.

Sirens sounded throughout northern Washington County for 4 minutes, 11 seconds beginning at 4:40 p.m., according to city officials. The tornado hit Hugo at 5 p.m.

Resident Keith Bruestle said that in the 15 or so minutes between the time the sirens were turned off and the tornado hit, some residents thought the danger was over. He and others argued that the sirens should have stayed on continuously.

At the meeting, city officials told residents they now may enter the damage zone without credentials, although credentials will still be required of contractors.

When one of about 100 people in attendance said that one contractor had said repair estimates were not necessary, Miron told residents to beware of any such claims and to ask contractors for credentials.

Some residents decried the loosening of credential requirements, saying the area will be swamped with gawkers and news media. Miron defended the decision, saying it would take too much manpower to continue restrictive credentialing.

Despite such complaints, most people expressed satisfaction with -- even pride in -- the way officials and residents have handled the crisis.

Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton said that security will continue to be tight in the damaged area. No looting or other crimes have been reported, he said.

The father and sister of the 2-year-old Hugo boy who was killed in the twister remained hospitalized. Gerard Prindle and daughter Annika, 4, along with mother Kristy, survived the destruction of their house. Nathaniel Prindle died when he was blown into a pond.

Volunteers are being sought for a cleanup effort to take place Saturday, Hugo officials said. More information is available at www.ci.hugo.mn.us.

Hugo resident Peggy Beckman, whose neighborhood near the city's fire hall sustained some damage, is one of those eager to help. "I have six kids; I want to get them all involved with helping," she said.

She said a girl at Oneka Elementary told her Tuesday that she'd lost everything but one dress. "I'm going through all of my kids' old clothes" to find something for her, she said.

Coon Rapids also continued to clean up in the wake of a lesser tornado and subsequent hailstorm that hit that city. About 500 to 600 trees were downed and a dozen homes were damaged in a 4-mile swath, Mayor Tim Howe said Tuesday. Curbside pickup of damaged trees will continue "until it's done,'' he said.

Staff writers Allie Shah and Mary Lynn Smith contributed to this report. kgiles@startribune.com • 651-298-1554 mcaul@startribune.com • 612-673-7647 prelerford@startribune.com • 612-673-4395

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