Hugo finds hope and heartache one year after tornadoby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
Hugo residents reach a bittersweet milestone Monday. One year ago, a tornado ripped through town, killing a 2-year-old boy and destroying dozens of houses. Ruthless winds and baseball-sized hail damaged hundreds more homes.
Hugo, Minn. — Fran Miron likes to say the rural character of Hugo is what helped his town rebuild.
Miron is a fourth-generation dairy and crop farmer -- and the proud father of last year's Princess Kay of the Milky Way. He's also the city's mayor.
"People got together, we had a job to do, everybody pitched in, and the job got done," Miron said.
Last Memorial Day weekend, the F-3 tornado shredded rooftops and ripped 28 homes from their foundations. About $24 million in property was damaged.
But Miron thinks the adversity allowed Hugo to show its true colors. On a recent morning on his farm, the mayor was reminded of that community spirit. One of his neighbors, Jim Leroux, showed up with an entire truckload of rhubarb for Miron and his wife.
After the tornado last year, Leroux made a similar unsolicited visit. He helped take over the farm duties while Miron responded to the crisis.
"He had to head up city hall and coordinate everything," Leroux said. "Since I hadn't been affected, I thought I'd try to help out. I did farmwork for people who were busy doing the public work."
The city of 12,000 was relatively prepared for the disaster. Hugo officials had already completed training for emergency management and responded quickly. Just one week after the storm, about 1,000 volunteers helped clear out most of the debris.
But in reality, the recovery was just beginning.
Rebirth of Fenway Avenue
On the suburban side of town, where the tornado unleashed the brunt of its wrath, Hugo looks like itself again. Kids are riding bikes, and parents are socializing in their lawn chairs. If the grass on Fenway Avenue looks especially shiny, green and new, it's because it is.
"Half of our street just got their lawn put in within the last couple of days," said Lisa Kaspszak.
Her family was one of 23 that have rebuilt their homes over the past year after the tornado ripped them from their foundations. The Kaspszaks moved in on Halloween.
Thanks to insurance, they were able to build an even bigger home in place of their old one.
Kaspszak said these past few months, she has been renewing friendships with her neighbors as they resettle on the block.
"We all are pretty anxious about getting over this hump of one year. I think just supporting each other, being around each other, and talking through it -- it's very emotional still," she said. "It's a long process. Some people think it's quick to rebuild, and it's not."
Hugo officials said the city is safer today. The city has revised its evacuation plans and mapping systems, updated the staff "call tree," and continued to educate residents.
Next to the Kaspszaks' new house is an empty lot. The home that once stood there belonged to Don and Julia Torgersen. They left Hugo and moved to Forest Lake.
'Could we live there again?'
In the Torgersens' new house about 10 miles away, the furniture looks brand new and the walls are still bare. Julia Torgersen said she and her husband discussed the idea of rebuilding on the lot where the twister leveled half of their old house and destroyed about 90 percent of their belongings.
"We thought, 'Could we live there again?'" she said. "I honestly, truly don't know if I would feel comfortable living there."
The Torgersens eventually cleared the lot and sold it. They found a spacious one-level -- the better for Don's heart. When the tornado struck, he got winded as he was racing to take cover. He was hospitalized later that day for a heart attack.
Don Torgersen still remembers the panic he felt when the sirens sounded, and winds nearing 165 mph began to howl.
While Julia ran downstairs, Don started down the steps. That's when he realized he was barefoot. He scrambled upstairs to grab some shoes but could only find Julie's much-smaller boots. Torgersen tried to squeeze them on when he heard his 15-year-old daschund squeak from his cage upstairs.
Don tears up when he recalls saying good-bye to his dog as he rushed downstairs into the basement.
"I told Max I'd see him in the next world -- and I figured that was it, not knowing what had happened to him," Don Torgersen said. "Turned up that night, there was a meeting at the school. And they found Max in his cage. So he was OK. He made it."
Don was in and out of the hospital in the weeks following the tornado. Because of his health problems, Julia took over all of the responsibilities of dealing with insurance, canceling credit cards, and buying new things to replace the old.
Julia said she could only wear sweat pants and T-shirts for the first several weeks. The thought of shopping for new clothes, let alone for cherished antiques and dishes from a trip to Sweden, drained her.
"It doesn't mean as much anymore," she said of her belongings. "Do you just go and buy something to replace that item? The meaning is gone."
But the Torgersens know they are the lucky ones. One Hugo woman, Marilyn MacLellan, lost her home to the tornado and died days later while clearning up debris.
And the Torgersens' other neighbors, Jerry and Christy Prindle, lost their 2-year-old son, Nathaniel, who was killed in the tornado. The couple's daughter, Annika, suffered from a brain injury from a lack of oxygen.
Ani, as her parents call her, is now 5 years old. After spending months in the hospital, she's in a wheelchair and can't move or speak. The family has built a house in Shoreview to accommodate Ani's needs. It also has a so-called "safe room" -- a secure place to which the family can retreat in case a tornado strikes again.
Christy Prindle said once in a while, they see glimmers of Ani's true self.
"When we talk about her brother Nate, she smiles," Christy Prindle said. "She loves the memories. She loves hearing us talk about him, and say the things that he used to say. It's wonderful."
The Prindles' old neighbors, church friends and even strangers have shown them "the best of humanity," Jerry Prindle said. The family will spend the one-year mark honoring Nate with a small gathering of friends.
"We're going to try and celebrate the two and half years we had," he said, fighting back tears. He paused. "Intellectually, you can say that, but it's not going to be the same."
The Prindles said it's going to be hard -- for a long time.
- Morning Edition, 05/25/2009, 8:25 a.m.