Across an unprecedented swath of storm-damaged Minnesota — from the far northwest reaches to the Iowa border — public officials, politicians and thousands of people on Friday began picking up the shattered pieces left behind by the worst one-day tally of tornadoes in state history.
State officials reported that up to 40 tornadoes struck Thursday, killing three people, injuring dozens, leaving countless homeless and wreaking an untold amount of damage. It was the worst one-day death toll from tornadoes since 1998.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent Friday assessing the damage from the nearly “unprecedented number” of tornadoes but extolling the “can-do attitude” of Minnesotans putting their lives back together.
Pawlenty said recovery is “a big challenge.” Of Minnesotans, he said: “They come together in crisis ... These communities will come back; they will be rebuilt.”
On Friday the governor signed an executive order authorizing assistance to those affected by the storm. He authorized 75 National Guard soldiers to support law enforcement in southern Minnesota communities affected by tornadoes and another 43 for Wadena County.
He also directed officials to ask the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct preliminary damage assessments in seven Minnesota counties. Those assessments will determine if federal disaster relief is needed.
The goal for the weekend and beyond, officials said, is to restore power, clear debris and help people heal.
Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, a candidate to succeed Pawlenty, pledged in a statement Friday “the full resources of state government to provide immediate relief for victims of this storm, and rebuild the communities that have been destroyed.”
In the Twin Cities, a joint information center — utilizing Facebook and Twitter to update the public on cleanup and recovery efforts — was established to help in the process.
Victims, and victims spared
In the storms’ deadly wake, people shared stories of tragedy — and heroism.
• Wes Michaels wasn’t supposed to be behind the counter of his Cenex gas station Thursday, his 58th birthday. But when he heard the storm warnings, he sped over to check on his daughter Heidi.
Once he got there, he saw the twister heading straight for the station. He told Heidi and several customers to get in a walk-in cooler — just before the tornado destroyed the store and four vehicles. Michaels was killed. His daughter and the customers survived.
“He saved me,” Heidi Michaels said.
• Near Almora, in Otter Tail County, the body of Margie Schulke, 79, was blown across the road from her mobile home, which was wiped out by a tornado. David Hauser, Otter Tail County Attorney and county spokesman, said, “It’s very possible that she was swept away” by the force of the storm.
Hauser said “several tornado touchdowns” were spotted in an area 36 miles long and 7 miles wide. Six people were injured and 45 homes damaged, six of which were destroyed.
• Kathy Woodside, 67, died when her southern Minnesota mobile home and barn, located west of Albert Lea, were destroyed. With no basement, she had nowhere to go for refuge.
Devastation north and south
Freeborn County endured up to nine tornadoes that tore up dozens of farms, said Mark Roche, the county’s emergency management director. Fourteen people were reported injured, with two requiring hospitalization.
In adjacent Faribault County, Scott Graves spent Friday picking up the pieces of his brother’s farm near Armstrong. Only the bathroom was left standing; that’s where his brother and two sisters huddled while a tornado destroyed their home. Neighbors dug them out of the rubble.
They were taken to a hospital in Albert Lea, where they are recovering.
“They’ve got their lives, and that’s more important than their property,” Graves said.
Wadena suffered perhaps the most extensive damage from storms that tallied, statewide, 39 reported tornadoes, 26 funnel clouds, 11 reports of damage from thunderstorm winds and 69 reports of hail.
Twenty people were treated at the hospital in Wadena for mostly minor injuries. Natural gas leaks popped up around the town of about 4,300, the community pool was destroyed and the community college suffered extensive damage. The worst damage appeared to be on the town’s southwest side, where the tornado ripped through Wadena-Deer Creek High School and destroyed homes for several blocks. Nearby was the still-standing home of Craig and Cindy Wood, its north wall sliced off as neatly as if it were a doll house.
Across the street is the Wadena city pool, where the Woods’ daughter, Mariah, 16, was working Thursday as a lifeguard. As the storm approached, the lifeguards called parents to get their children. Twenty minutes before the tornado hit, two children remained with the lifeguards.
In emergencies, they were to go to the maintenance building. Mariah Wood called her mother and asked if there was room in the family basement. Cindy Wood told them to run over.
After the tornado, they looked at the pool and saw that the maintenance building was gone. “We would’ve been dead,” Mariah Wood said.
Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden flew over his town and saw “a horrific sight from the air. ... Thank God for the emergency management system early alert. I and many other people were in their basements, and it spared our lives.”
Rodney Tucker, 46, was alone at his Wadena home when he heard the tornado warnings, grabbed his dog and headed for the basement.
“As soon as I got in the basement, I heard glass breaking,” he said. “The dog got scared and ran upstairs, so I ran after him. As soon as I got into the living room, the house collapsed on us.”
The steel roof from a nearby ice rink crushed his home.
As he started working his way through a small opening in the debris, a crew from the Discovery Channel TV show “Storm Chasers” helped him out. They were filming, Tucker said, but he didn’t mind.
“I’m very lucky. I give God credit for that one,” he said. “It could have gone either way.”
Staff writers Kevin Duchschere, Shari Gross, Mary Lynn Smith, Vince Tuss, Alex Ebert and Tim Harlow contributed to this report.