Wadena's Words of Wisdom
Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden was the guest speaker at a Kiwanis meeting this week, bringing with him the stories of trials and triumph.
Those stories started with audio from the 9-1-1 calls that came in that afternoon and a video presentation of their disaster.
After an EF4 tornado ripped through the town on June 17, 2010, Wolden and the entire community were left looking at seven miles worth of the twisted steal and debris that was once their town.
"The southwest part of Wadena really looked like a war zone -- it looked like a bomb had went off," said Wolden.
The twister had totaled the town's high school, community center, pool, baseball fields and fair grounds.
One of the pieces from the community center's roof was found five miles away.
Although town residents were devastated, they weren't alone for long.
Wolden says instantly they were inundated with calls from the Red Cross, the Weather Channel and dozens of agencies from around the community.
"The first hour after the tornado, we had 100 police officers from 20 agencies in our town," said Wolden. "By the second night, we had 30 fire departments that had responded to Wadena."
Wolden said help started pouring in from community organizations that started helping first and asking questions later.
"And that's how we've got to be," said Wolden. "Get to be really good friends with the White Earth Reservation -- they will be your best friends in a disaster. They brought 13 officers, a fleet of four wheelers, a trailer, radio communications, and they spent three weeks in our town."
The National Guard and the Salvation Army also responded.
Chinese Buddhists came in and gave $75,000 in cash cards to residents impacted by the tornado
"They had heard of our disaster, so they came all the way here and wanted a list of the people who had been affected with significant damage, and to those people they had $500 gift cards. They left $75,000 on a Saturday."
Wolden started collecting a big stack of business cards from everybody who could help them.
"And I would write 'no BS' on them because I'd tell them I needed cards only from somebody who's not going to give me any BS."
Wolden said the devastated section of town was blocked off, and people had to have a pass and a sheriff's escort to get in.
About 3,000 volunteers from around the state hauled half a million cubic yards of debris out of the city and piled it like twisted mountains.
"Detroit Lakes had electric crews and dump trucks; the city of Moorhead took care of our whole north side on a Saturday..." said Wolden, who adds there were 5,000 loads of debris taken out in all.
But not all help was welcome. Vendors wanting to "help" rebuild Wadena weren't always on the up and up.
"We had every Tom, Dick and Harry in Wadena wanting to fix roofs and things, so we set up a vendor registration to verify their insurance and licensure," said Wolden, adding that people got wise after one lady got taken for a $500 deposit.
Wolden told the Detroit Lakes Kiwanians, which included several city and county leaders, that the most important thing they can do in a disaster is communicate with the citizens.
One way Wadena officials did this was by holding public meetings.
"We brought the sheriff, emergency management director, fire chief, police chief -- all the folks that people rely on," said Wolden. "People want to see that their government leaders are there and can respond to their questions."
Wolden said one of the main concerns of the residents (and most challenging for city officials) was a desire to get back into the destroyed homes.
"People just wanted to rush back in and start getting them back into shape, but for the most part, people were calm."
Nobody in Wadena died as a result of the tornado, but the town was looking at financial devastation.
About 400 homes were damaged, with 100 of those being destroyed, and 20 businesses were hit for a grand total of $33 million in damage.
Wolden says what made it even tougher on the city is that surrounding communities were offering up free buildings and land to those affected business owners.
"So oddly enough, you didn't just have a tornado with 170 mile winds, now you had to fight to keep your businesses in town," said Wolden, who adds that Wadena then turned around and offered those same businesses free land in their industrial park.
All the businesses stayed.
M State in Wadena made room for the high school students, which is where they remain until a new school is built.
After a battle over insurance, the school received $42 million to rebuild.
"So we'll have a new energy efficient lead-certified school that students will move into next fall," said Wolden.
The Wadena sheriff, emergency manager and chief of police have all taken this video presentation to communities around Minnesota to share the knowledge they gained from surviving a disaster of this magnitude.
"Talk to your leaders...ask them if they know what to do if a tornado hits or if a flood hits -- challenge them," Wolden advised. "Their budgets are slim, but don't skimp on public safety money. Without it, we would be telling a different story in Wadena."