Worries in Wadena as residents opt not to rebuildby Tom Robertson, Minnesota Public Radio
Wadena, Minn. — It's been nearly a month since more than a dozen tornadoes ripped through a wide swath of Minnesota, taking three lives and causing millions of dollars in damage.
Hardest hit was the town of Wadena, in northwestern Minnesota.
Today there are plenty of signs of recovery in Wadena. Construction contractors are busy rebuilding. Some homes that are beyond repair are getting knocked down and hauled away.
But there's growing concern that some tornado victims may choose not to return to their neighborhoods.
Construction workers are repairing the roof of retired accountant Charles Rowe's rambler on Wadena's west side. He's lived here for 32 years. Along with the roof damage, the June 17 tornado ripped down Rowe's two-stall garage, it destroyed his 32-foot motor home, it knocked down every tree in his back yard. The damage throughout his neighborhood is heartbreaking, he says.
"The character of this southwest, where I've lived, has had gorgeous, big trees forever. And the character is gone," he says. "All this destruction, it's just terrible."
Rowe says he's lucky his home is still liveable. Many homes around him were destroyed. Rowe fears many of his neighbors are gone forever.
"I know of 20 people that aren't going to rebuild, in four blocks. A lot of them are underinsured or not insured. They've just walked away from their homes," he says.
The tornado destroyed some 230 homes on Wadena's west side. Many are still standing, but contractors are beginning to knock them down and clear away the debris.
The possibility that those homes might not be replaced is a big concern for city officials. Mayor Wayne Wolden says he personally knows of half a dozen families whose homes were destroyed and who now plan to leave town. Wolden says there's a lot at stake.
"The tax base for the community. The blank spaces where a home used to be. Those children who used to go to Wadena-Deer Creek schools. Those neighbors who won't be in the neighborhood anymore. That concerns me," he says.
About 100 tornado victims have found help at this Disaster Recovery Center in Wadena's National Guard Armory. Local, state and federal agencies were here for a few days to help identify resources available to individuals and businesses.
Debbie Lichtenberg wasn't home when her four-plex apartment building was destroyed by the tornado. She's now staying with her oldest daughter.
Lichtenberg is one of those people who plans to leave Wadena. She's getting ready to move to Verndale. Lichtenberg lost most of her possessions and is now trying to rebuild her life.
"If you don't have no insurance you don't get nothing. And I don't have any," she says. "I didn't have any renters insurance, so I'm down here to see what they can do to help me."
The most likely help for people like Lichtenberg is in the form of low-interest federal loans. John Moore, the state's disaster recovery coordinator, says a lack of adequate insurance, or no insurance at all, is a common problem. It's affecting hundreds not just in Wadena, but in the surrounding area.
"We're seeing farmers who, although their homes were insured, the outbuildings and the equipment and buildings were not covered," he says. "We're seeing a lot of issues with debris removal. Homeowners have to bear that expense when the insurance doesn't cover that, and that's a tremendous expense when you're looking at these big trees."
Meanwhile, Wadena is also dealing with big infrastructure needs. School officials, for example, are scrambling to find classroom space for their students.
The Wadena-Deer Creek High School was damaged beyond repair, so some 500 students will likely attend classes at Wadena's technical college.
Wadena and Otter Tail counties have set up a long-term recovery committee to distribute funds donated toward the community's efforts. A separate fund has been established to raise money for trees.
City officials hope to plant 10,000 trees in town next spring.