Monday, June 21, 2010

Accidental relief workers

We are at the Elks lodge in Wadena, Minnesota (map). There is a lone electric pedestal here with two 20-amp circuits and a water spigot, and we took advantage of them to top up the batteries and the water tanks.

US-10, which passes through Wadena, has been on our route plan since we first decided to follow the Hi-Line. And we knew from news reports Friday that a tornado had touched down here and done some damage, but we did not really realize how bad it was until we pulled into town, and drove straight across the path of destruction.

The tornado turned out to be an EF-4, touching down three miles south of town, cutting through town from south to north like a buzz saw, and continuing for another seven miles before lifting, leaving behind a swath of destruction ten miles long and a quarter mile wide. It completely obliterated the high school, the bus garage, the Wellness Center, the municipal pool, the county fairgrounds, several businesses, some homes, and a church. Many more homes and businesses suffered less extensive damage. In all, over 230 homes were damaged, and from touring the area I would estimate that some 10% or so of those were completely destroyed. Luckily, no one in this town was killed, and there were only 34 injuries, mostly minor.

When we first arrived we had planned to spend two nights here, to get a few projects done. So we knew we had some time, and after seeing what happened, we made a few phone calls and learned that one of our Red Cross associates was handling technology for the Minnesota relief operations, but he was some 240 miles away, in Rochester. When we called him to let him know we were here in Wadena, he was thrilled, because he was already faced with figuring out how to get someone up here to survey sites and set up equipment. We pulled the scooters out and headed downtown to find the small handful of other Red Cross staff already on the ground.

We spent most of the afternoon yesterday doing a site survey and testing equipment connectivity; the equipment came up from Rochester with a courier. After we satisfied ourselves that the equipment was working we sent the courier back; it took him the whole day to make the round trip. We then attended the daily town meeting run by the mayor.

I have to say, for a small town in rural America, this place is well prepared. The mayor, wearing a lime-green safety vest, ran a well-organized meeting with a sense of humor, calling in sequence each department head and agency chief to provide the status of debris removal, restoration of utility service, progress on finding alternate classrooms for the upcoming school year, where to obtain assistance, and how to get trucks and heavy equipment to affected properties. The meeting was simultaneously broadcast on local radio station KWAD. The town is well on its way to recovery, and they have yet to see a dime of federal or state assistance. The city also has an excellent web site, complete with recovery information, and you can see some photos of the damage there.

This morning we've loaded up the scooters in anticipation of a hail storm later today, and shortly we will head down to the designated Red Cross facility in Odyssey to unpack and set up equipment. Once that's done, our job here is mostly finished, and we will continue east towards Minneapolis. Our coworkers in Rochester will support this site from there, and someone else will come up to tear down the equipment here when it is no longer needed.

While we were here, we did get to eat dinner at the "Uptown" restaurant which is, uhh, downtown, and was quite good. The place was packed on Saturday night, and I suspect the relief efforts have something to do with that. The tornado passed just two or three blocks west of the main street downtown, sparing the historic old buildings including two restaurants and a cinema, all with wonderful neon signs from circa 1930 or so. Last night we ate at the Nite Owl, a bar/burger/pizza joint on the east edge of town, and it, too, was packed. On our way there we discovered the city park across the street, complete with RV hookups, $24 per night.

Photo by jenniferrt66, used under a Creative Commons license.

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