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Franken tours Wadena tornado damage, vows D.C. help for city

Photo by Rachelle Klemme U.S. Sen. Al Franken and Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden show off their city of Wadena buttons.

"What I see here is an incredible spirit. I see a spirit of rebuilding," Senator Al Franken (D-Minn) told Wadena city leaders at M State on Wednesday.

The destruction in west Wadena was far from the halls of Washington, D.C.

"We lost so much public infrastructure," said Don Niles, chairman of the Wadena 2.0 rebuild effort.

Before the meeting, the senator saw the impacted area in a van tour.

City leaders showed Franken the southwest side of Wadena through Irving Avenue, Tapley Park, 7th Street and other neighborhoods including the Harmony Lane cul-de-sac where an abandoned house was still in shambles.

They drove by the cemetery, pausing by the pool and the destruction of the high school.

"I'll be contacting my staff in Washington about this right away and will try to look for funding sources," Franken later told the Pioneer Journal in regard to the high school.

Officials showed the senator the battered industrial area along U.S. Highway 10, the fairgrounds, and the northwest residential area.

At the meeting, however, city officials told Franken they were looking to the future.

"In 50 years we'd like our grandchildren to say, 'Those people were really thinking,'" Niles said.

Mayor Wayne Wolden said, "Legislatively, we need to get Highway 10 done, period."

"This is an opportunity that nature has presented to the town, to the state, to widen this road and make it a four-lane, which is something that has been in the works for decades," Franken said of the four-lane expansion. "Chairman [Obsterstar] is looking at this very, very closely."

The upcoming high school year was an even more immediate concern.

"We don't have two years to go through an earmark process," M State President Dr. Ann Valentine said.

Valentine and WDC superintendent Virginia Dahlstrom had put together an integrated program for the high school and the college regarding food service over the next two years.

"We have 200 high school students arriving here in 10 business days. We need some help, and it's to the tune of about $650,000," Valentine said.

Franken praised the rebuilding effort and spirit in Wadena. He said it was miraculous that no one died.

"The first thing you did right was save lives," Franken said. "Secondly, the immediate response was remarkable. You are juggling 30 balls while drinking from a fire hose."

He also thanked Val Gravseth, whom he nicknamed "Val the Disaster Gal."

Gravseth is the Northwest Regional Field Representative in Franken's staff.

"These people have become my friends," Gravseth said. "I love Wadena."

After the meeting,

Franken and his staff went to the Wadena VFW Post. With his signature laugh, he thanked them for the meals they had prepared for volunteers in the wake of the tornado.

Franken presented a flag to Commander Charles Venzke. Franken said that the flag was flown over the U.S. Capitol on Aug. 12.

Venzke said that the Wadena VFW had served 11,500 meals.

Venzke in turn presented a check of $3,971.44 to Mayor Wayne Wolden. The money was from donations to the VFW which were in excess, and the VFW decided to hand it over to the city.

"You were here and that meant so much," Wolden said to Venzke.