Residents, officials begin assessing damage, determining next stepsby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
Today, Hugo residents tried to understand the extent of the damage of a tornado that swept through their community leaving a 2-year-old boy dead and 17 people hospitalized. Late this afternoon Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared the area a disaster zone.
St. Paul, Minn. — Hugo City Administrator Mike Ericson was on the scene 15 minutes after the storm hit last night.
"I've personally walked the whole site, and it's unlike anything I've ever seen in my life," Ericson said.
Ericson estimates 300 homes were damaged.
"Everything from siding, hail damage, shingle damage to the 50 homes that are completely gone, there's nothing left," Ericson explained.
Oneka Elementary School, built just two years ago in this fast growing community north of White Bear Lake, narrowly missed getting hit. So today it became the command center. TV satellite trucks lined the parking lot.
The city council held an emergency meeting in the atrium. And residents who'd evacuated the night before showed up with one big question on their minds: When can I see my house?
Staci Tacker was asleep when the storm struck. She didn't even have time to reach her basement as her home was collapsing around her, and she wanted to see what was left of it.
"When we left, it was still standing, but half of it was starting to cave. But my brother just called and said that he saw it on the news and its' down. So we're waiting to see if its still standing. Because it might not be," Tacker said.
Police started letting residents back into the neighborhood this afternoon. They could survey the damage and collect their belongings, but officials will be clearing everyone out again at 6 p.m. tonight. For safety reasons, utility companies shut off electricity and gas to the damaged area.
Washington County Sheriff Bill Hutton plans to maintain roadblocks around the neighborhood, in part to protect the property from looting or further damage.
"We don't want people who do not belong in the area coming in and taking advantage of a tragedy," Hutton said.
Hutton said he's proud of the way his department responded to the destruction. And he said he especially appreciates all the manpower donated by nearby police departments, including Oakdale, Bayport, North St. Paul, Forest Lake, Wyoming and Chisago County.
But some residents said there could have been been better coordination. Michael Dreawves wanted to help his parents start repairing their house as soon as possible, and he was getting frustrated this morning.
"You go to the City Hall, they say go to the Fire Dept. You go to the fire department, they say it's going to be up at Oneka Elementary. Right now, all the residents that are trying to get back in to get some work done are driving around in circles," Dreawves said.
A number of Minnesota's elected leaders came to Hugo to view the affected area and address residents' concerns.
Speaking before she surveyed the damage, Democratic U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar said she has faith in the resilience of Minnesota's communities.
"And I know from seeing what I saw in southeastern Minnesota in Rushford that towns can rebuild," Klobuchar said. "Rushford was basically decimated from that flood, and they came back."
Republican U.S. Senator Norm Coleman said his office would try to help Hugo. But he said much of the damage will be covered by private insurance, so there may not be much federal money to be had.
"Typically federal aid, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) aid, focuses on uninsured damage, floods for instance, in this area here, that may not be the case. But whatever can be done, we're going to do," Coleman said.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty said FEMA will be on the ground in Hugo this evening to do an initial assessment. But even if the area doesn't qualify for FEMA aid, the governor said there are other potential sources for government assistance.
"There are other programs that can help, including the small business administration, federally, and the state has helped in the past when we've had tornados that don't FEMA-qualify like Rogers a couple years ago. We've stepped in and provided re-imbursement for the city and for others as well," Pawlenty said.
So it's not clear how much federal or state money will go to the tornado damaged area. But Pawlenty did not rule out calling a special Legislative session to find state funds for Hugo, if necessary.
- All Things Considered, 05/26/2008, 5:24 p.m.