One year later: Residents rebuild after tornado swept through area
One year ago today, the skies over Hubbard County were roiling, blacker than a pocket and ominous looking.
They unleashed an EF-2 tornado over the southern tip of the county, decimating a turkey farm and shores along Stocking Lake in Wadena County and Hinds Lake in Hubbard County. Ten minutes later, an EF-3 tornado hit Pickerel Lake and wreaked a long path of destruction.
In that year, there's been discussion as to whether it was one tornado that dipped back up into the clouds, gathered steam and descended a second time, or whether the storm system spawned more than one separate funnel cloud.
Reports of twisters flooded into Hubbard County's emergency dispatch center, swamping the lone dispatcher within seconds. Scattered, simultaneous damage reports came in from Park Rapids and other areas, lending credence to the theory that multiple tornados were swirling through the region.
E-911 supervisor Sherri Klasen raced to help her dispatcher.
Emergency personnel fanned out across the region chasing clouds, assessing damage and responding to frantic calls. Tornado sirens sounded. A command post was quickly established at the Lake Emma Town Hall.
It was several hours before the worst damage was visible. Authorities and power company trucks had to chainsaw their way in to Happy Drive, on a south bay of the lake. The area became ground zero. Across Pickerel, on Ivy Drive, the tornado had also taken a toll, sucking one home into the lake.
At the time, Hubbard County wasn't in a tornado watch. The National Weather service theorized this perfect storm was caused by the collision of two separate systems that spawned a line of severe thunderstorms and tornados. The path of destruction stretched from Menahga to Lake George.
Citizens reported finding pieces of insulation and turkey feathers as far away as Bemidji from the Jennie-O farm. It was later determined the area death count of the poultry was 75,000.
Only one man, a Jennie-O employee, was injured in the storm and his injuries were considered minor.
The cleanup took months. Scars remain to this day where trees were felled, ripped from their moorings by wind speeds that reached 160 mph near Happy Drive. Divers scoured the lake bottom to retrieve motorized vehicles and recreational possessions, housing materials and household items.
An "after action" tornado report assessed several areas of concern but generally found Hubbard County's response to be commendable. The report suggested a second siren, a more reliable radio system, two dispatchers on duty, a phone rollover system to handle the excess volume of 911 calls and a redundant radio system for communications since the county's main transmitter was knocked off the air by high winds.
Money woes have curtailed the county's ability to build a second siren, although a new phone system has been purchased, the transmitter was repaired and the radio system has been upgraded.
Down south, the turkey plant, actually named Tru Enterprises, tore down the 11 damaged barns that housed the turkeys killed.
"Jennie-O cut back production so it didn't make sense to rebuild something that would sit empty," said Linda Missling, who lives on the farm. Her daughter owns it.
Of the 28 barns, 17 remain and have been repaired, Missling said. Cost containment measures have been taken. The farm shut down for a month this winter to save on energy and feed costs and hours have been cut back, Missling said.
She said the insurance proceeds might be reinvested to finance a wind power venture.
On Ivy Drive, Brad Rasmus leveled what was left of his cabin, put the lot up for sale and bought on another lake. The Rausch family next door spent the summer, as many Pickerel residents did, sawing fallen trees and cleaning up the rubble.
Truckloads of trees and waste were hauled to the Hubbard County Transit Station.
Happy Drive experienced the most residential devastation. The home of John and Joann Pratt on a southeast wooded point, came to symbolize the storms.
Wreckage from their home was strewn over and into three sides of the lake.
Joann Pratt sat in her newly built home Thursday pointing out the small objects recovered: A sign here and there, a trinket. The Pratts' daughters and sons-in-law worked all winter with a builder to finish the two-story home that now has a basement area the family can retreat to if another storm arrives.
The home has a spectacular lake view from three sides.
"We don't have any trees anymore," Joann pointed out. The walls are filled with photos of the old house, beautifully framed and arranged on a gold wall.
The family is hosting an open house today to thank the neighbors, volunteers and strangers who responded.
"It was overwhelming the support we had so we could get started again," Joann said.
She worries about all the household items at the bottom of the lake. "They got our snowmobile and all of our lawnmowers," she said.
On June 6, 2008, John was on his way to the lake from their Becker home, got waylaid and decided to postpone his trip a day. He wouldn't have survived the storm, Joann said.
The following day, June 7, was the couple's 55th anniversary.
"Honey I'm sorry I didn't get you a present," Joann said her husband told her as they started the monumental debris cleanup.
"You're here and you're alive," she told him. "That's the best gift I could have ever gotten."