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Wadena mayor Wayne Wolden

Steady in a storm: Wadena mayor keeps spirits light

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WADENA, Minn. - Wayne Wolden isn't just the mayor for residents here. He's their tireless cheerleader.

Wolden's responsibilities as mayor increased dramatically last week when a tornado devastated much of this town of 4,300 about 90 miles southeast of Fargo.

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Wolden, 47, describes the time since June 17 as "an absolute blur," wrought with emotions and challenges beyond anything he's faced in his 12 years as mayor.

But he has stepped up to the task and always seems to have a joke ready.

"People need to continue to remember that you need to have a sense of humor," said Wolden, who will run for his seventh two-year term this fall. "If you don't laugh, you'll cry."

Since the storm, Wolden's day starts at 5 a.m. and doesn't wrap up until almost midnight, but fatigue has yet to set in, and adrenaline continues to keep him moving forward.

"I'm Norwegian," he said. "You have to."

Wolden, clad in his neon emergency vest, spent Sunday morning riding an ATV between churches to speak at the beginning of each service.

"The people around me are really giving me strength," he said.

The storm

Wolden was huddled in the basement with one of his three children, 17-year-old Christina, when the tornado struck at 5 p.m. He heard the telltale "freight train" sound and then silence.

Wolden saw some fallen trees when he stood on the front lawn of his home in southwest Wadena, but it wasn't until he rode an ATV down the block that he saw the devastation in his neighborhood.

The fire department was there within minutes, helping residents out of homes and turning off severed gas lines.

Although Wolden has become the face of the tornado response, he's quick to give credit to the chief of police, sheriff, emergency management director, fire personnel and other emergency responders.

"The people in Wadena are relying on its public servants, and I can't take any credit on this," he said.

The devastation

The breadth of damage continued to grow as reports came in that night.

The community center, high school, public swimming pool, college and dozens of homes were heavily damaged by the EF4 tornado that carved a path with winds of up to 170 mph.

The devastation continued to sink in days after the storm.

Wolden said his most difficult moment was looking at what used to be the community center while on a tour with Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on Saturday.

Wolden, a two-term hockey president and hockey dad, cried as he showed the senator the destroyed hockey facility but was relieved that at least the Zamboni he has driven for 17 years survived.

The cleanup

Wolden likens the time he's put in organizing response to the disaster and cleanup efforts to opening restaurants when he was district manager for Hardee's about 25 years ago.

"I've gone into that auto-programming where you know what work needs to be done," he said. "You've got people everywhere. You're managing to learn different things and work together."

Wolden leads a public meeting each day to answer questions and hear concerns. When he's not giving tours to politicians or talking to reporters, Wolden goes door to door in the tornado-damaged areas to find out how his residents are doing.

Steve Carbno has met many mayors in his years as disaster coordinator for the Salvation Army of Cass and Clay Counties and said he admires Wolden's work on the recovery effort.

"He's made tough decisions, and not everybody has always been happy," Carbno said. "But he's been the catalyst to pull the entire city together."

Ann Valentine, president of Minnesota State Community and Technical College, said she was impressed with Wolden's leadership on Sunday when she and other officials toured the tornado damage with him.

"Wayne just knows everyone in town. He could tell us stories about individuals, where they were, what happened to their homes," Valentine said. "People were waving at him, very clearly glad to see that he was out and about and helping to garner support for his community."

In addition to hitting the streets, Wolden has been working the phones. He stays in close contact with Gov. Tim Pawlenty's office, as well as other state officials, to make sure Wadena has all the help it can get.

Wolden, who also serves as president of the Coalition of Greater Minnesota Cities, has battled Pawlenty over cuts to local government aid.

But he didn't bring up those disagreements during Pawlenty's tour of Wadena last Friday.

"It's a time to put aside partisan bickering and start talking about what we need to do to rebuild our community," Wolden said.

Moving forward

Wolden said he isn't sure when his life will return to normal. He returned to his job as business manager for MSCTC on Wednesday.

Spending time with his wife, Lori, and his children is what he's missed most in the past week, he said.

He and his daughter, Christina, celebrated Father's Day a few days late. She gave him a gift certificate to the hardware store on Tuesday.

"We'll spend the quality time when we can turn this emergency light off and get back to normal life again," he said.

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