FEMA, state officials survey Wadena tornado damageby Ambar Espinoza, Minnesota Public Radio
Wadena, Minn. — Federal and state emergency management crews have spent the past two days meeting with city officials in seven counties to assess the damage left behind by at least 18 tornadoes in Minnesota last week.
These assessments will help determine whether Gov. Tim Pawlenty will request a major disaster declaration from President Barack Obama.
Teams surveyed damage in Faribault, Freeborn, Olmsted and Steele Counties in southern Minnesota, and Otter Tail, Polk, and Wadena Counties in the northwest.
Bill Hirte, public assistance officer for the Homeland Security and Emergency Management unit at the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, stands near the ruins of Wadena High School. It doesn't have a roof. Shreds of wood and glass from its broken windows surround the school. Large pieces of debris stab its walls.
"It's without a doubt -- the building is going to be totaled," Hirte says. "So we're just kind of getting a little better feel of the extent of damage just in the school area here. This whole area is affected. We've got the estimates for that and the numbers are big. They'll need a new school."
Hirte says his team will submit a report to the governor with the tornado damage estimates. If the damages from all seven counties meet the state's threshold for federal aid -- at least $6.4 million -- then the governor can request a federal disaster declaration.
Once that happens, the counties will become eligible for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will consider reimbursement only for damages beyond the city's insurance coverage.
Hirte says he hasn't seen tornado damage like this before. The county fairgrounds were completely demolished by the tornado, including some concrete block buildings.
"That shows a lot of power, and this one was an F-4 tornado," he says. "So 175 miles an hour, I think is what they're saying. And in Minnesota we don't see a lot of F-4 tornadoes."
The tornado traveled about 10 to 11 miles near Wadena, according to Brad Swenson the Wadena city administrator. He says the tornado was four to five blocks wide.
"It started on the southwest portion of town. It never got to the east side of town, but it stayed on the west side," he says.
State and federal emergency management teams first spent hours interviewing city officials to document and assess cost damages. Then they surveyed damaged areas to double-check that the damages match the dollar amount reported.
Larry Duke, a disaster assistance employee with FEMA, takes notes as he goes from one disaster site to another in Wadena.
"The notes that I'm taking are just identifying what photos I'm taking and where I'm taking them to support the documentation I got from the applicants," he says.
And by applicants, Duke is referring to the various departments that are seeking federal disaster aid for recovery.
These teams also took careful notes on other destruction left by the tornadoes in these counties. In Wadena, a fertilizer plant near the county fairgrounds was also destroyed. Private businesses are not eligible for federal aid, but the teams will note any businesses and jobs lost, or environmental impacts.
Hirte says these emergency management teams are working as swiftly as they can. He says officials hope to submit a final damage assessment report to the governor by noon Thursday.
"This is a lot more damage than we expected to see. So until we add the numbers up, we won't know for sure, but there's a lot of damage here and these folks need help," he says. "So that's probably the bottom line."
Hirte says the governor will likely review the reports and send the disaster request to Washington within the same day. He says people have to keep in mind the country is going through a lot of disaster activity and leaders in Washington will review the request as soon as they can.
Hirte says it can take anywhere from two to three weeks. That still may not be soon enough for residents of Wadena, who are anxious to rebuild their city.
- Morning Edition, 06/24/2010, 7:20 a.m.