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Cleanup continues on Pickerel Lake after June tornado hit

PICKEREL LAKE - On a beautiful fall day when thousands of people were out biking, enjoying the leaves or fishing, tornado victims, their friends, neighbors and a handful of strangers were cleaning up debris.

That's the way they've spent the past four months on Pickerel Lake after an EF-3 tornado packing 160 mph winds roared through the area, leaving a wide path of destruction.

It changed many lives, and Saturday was a time to reminisce, count their blessings and move forward.

On a bluff overlooking Pickerel's eastern bay, the gleaming concrete of John and Joann Pratt's new foundation stood in defiance of Mother Nature.

The Pratt's home was swept off the bluff down the hillside and into the lake on that fateful day.

Pratts' two daughters and husbands have come almost every weekend from the Twin Cities to help their parents with the cleanup. John and Joann live in Becker. John decided at the last minute on June 6 not to come up to his cabin. It had been raining. He said he'd wait until that Saturday.

"They had a calling tree," Gail Bliss said of the lake neighborhood her parents were a part of. "Pauline Eilers started calling people as soon as they knew what the damage was. She saw my dad's truck wrapped around a tree and called to see where he was."

Bliss and her sister, Linda Sharkey, are very thankful their parents were miles away when the tornado hit, especially when the family came to Hubbard County the following day to view the damage.

"It was a big open scar," Bliss said of the forested area surrounding the lake.

Bliss and Sharkey said contractors will begin putting up walls this week on their parents' new home. Because of setback requirements, the new cabin won't have the same view the old one did. It's perched a bit further down the bluff. And although the insurance company was generous, Bliss said, the money still wasn't enough to build a garage at this time.

The sisters don't complain about the work. "It's progress," Bliss said. "We're moving forward."

They can't say thank you enough to neighbors who have toiled to help them clean up. Neighbor Dave Olson's four-wheeler has been invaluable getting to debris that is hard to reach.

The only damage Olson's house suffered was when a chunk of Pratt's home swirled down the hill, along the beach and wedged itself into his garage window.

"He's been wonderful," Bliss said. "He's been here more than we have."

Bliss and Sharkey were also grateful to a crew from the Hubbard County Sheriff's Department that spent part of Saturday trolling the waters of Pickerel Lake looking for the hot water heater, eve though they couldn't find it.

Just over the bluff, Peter Berzins and friends from the metro area were removing the support posts of a gazebo Berzins' father built on the lake when Pete was a kid.

"I remember them putting these in," Berzins said, huffing and puffing to lift the sturdy poles out of the ground.

He points to a debris-laden expanse of the hill. "This was supposed to be my retirement home in two years," he said of the mostly empty space. The trailer that was there was tossed up over the bluff and down the opposite shore.

"We found some pieces of it down the hill and cut it up with torches to haul it away," he said. "Other pieces we still haven't seen."

Jake Pflipsen was helping Berzins. He lives down the beach. "I lost two docks and a shed," Pflipsen said.

Across the bay on the north side of the lake, Brad Rasmus stands on a cement slab. His isn't new, though. It's all that remained of his cabin, which took the brunt of the tornado after it skipped straight across the lake from Pratt's home.

"We ended up buying a place on Potato Lake," the Fargo man said. "We were actually on our way up here when we heard" about the tornado that hit Ivy Drive.

Rasmus' neighbors have helped him clean up his mess. As he turned to face away from the lake, his gaze rested on a swamp behind his where his cabin was.

"That's my roof and the upstairs window," he said, pointing to a peak barely visible in the muck.

"We hauled six or seven truckloads of stuff out of that swamp," he said.

Once he gets the site cleaned, he'll fill it in and sell the lot, he said. The tornado shaved the top of his walkout home off. It was a spectacular lake view.

He, too, is thankful for his neighbors, who pitched in every weekend to help.

"It wasn't much of a summer," said neighbor Chris Rausch. "There wasn't a lot of fishing or fun."

Rausch said when they got to the house debris, they were amazed that "it was covered in turkey feathers" from the Jennie-O farm some 35 miles south. It, too, was demolished in the storm.

Emergency Management Director David Konshok, who coordinated Saturday's cleanup, is putting the finishing touches on a report he will present to the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners sometime this fall.

Pratts are trying to look to the future, not the past. Bliss laughs about a small patch of corn growing near the old house. "These are volunteers," she said, gesturing to the crop. "A little blessing" left by the wind.

Pratts' neighbor, Pat Hetrick, has been making regular deliveries of potted baby pine trees to reforest the site. Residents of Happy Drive, which skirts the southern part of the bay, were horrified to learn that one resident had spent $800 for three trees to replace a dozen lost.

But even though Pratts may be living on a treeless bluff, they are prepared. This house will have a basement. They'd rather have that than a garage any day.