Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Rice County still needs volunteers to help with storm clean-up October 17, 2018

Several days ago I photographed this home destroyed September 20 by an EF-2 tornado in Morristown. This small town was the hardest hit in a massive storm system that spawned 16 tornadoes and straight line winds in southern Minnesota. An EF-2 has wind speeds of 120 – 130 mph.

 

FOUR WEEKS AFTER MULTIPLE TORNADOES and severe storms ravaged Rice County, folks in my area still need assistance.

 

In the same Morristown neighborhood.

 

So, for the third time, Rice County Emergency Management is coordinating volunteer clean-up efforts. We need your help. This Saturday, October 20, exactly a month after those storms.

 

More damage in the same block in Morristown.

 

Although I’ve not joined these organized efforts, I assisted a friend after three trees fell in her yard, one landing on her house. Randy and I also checked on and helped an elderly neighbor. And then we got around to removing two limbs from our yard, with the help of a friend and his chainsaw.

 

More tornado damage in Morristown.

 

Do you see a word repeating in this post? That would be help. After a devastating storm like this, help is essential.

 

In a nearby neighborhood in Morristown, roof damage.

 

If you can help, register beginning at 7:30 a.m. Saturday for a two or four-hour shift at volunteer headquarters, the 4-H building at the Rice County Fairgrounds on the north side of Faribault. It seems fitting that the 4-H building serves as the coordination center. Part of the 4-H motto includes pledging hands to larger service.

 

Twisted trees, the telltale signs of a tornado, these near the water tower in Morristown.

 

Lots of hands are needed to remove trees and brush, pick up debris from farm fields and more.

 

This damaged Camaro is parked in the Morristown neighborhood hard hit by a September 20 tornado.

 

We’re only an hour from Minneapolis along Interstate 35. We’d welcome you from the metro to help us, your neighbors to the south. We’d welcome you from Iowa to help your neighbors to the north. We’d welcome anyone with the ability to help.

 

In the countryside near Morristown.

 

As I’ve been out and about the county during the weeks since the storms, I’ve noted the destruction and all of the work yet to be done. It’s heartbreaking really to see homes destroyed, farm buildings demolished, chunks of metal strewn across fields, and endless uprooted and damaged trees (including in my neighborhood).

Help is definitely needed. But so is the hope that help brings.

I have friends waiting for claims adjusters, contractor estimates and insurance payments. They’re waiting for contractors to replace roofs, siding, rafters, a garage door, fences… It’s stressful and, sometimes, overwhelming. They, and so many others, need to know someone, anyone, cares. And care comes in two ways, via help and hope.

FYI: Click here to read more detailed information about this Saturday’s volunteer clean-up efforts.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Another look at storm damage in Faribault, in & near my neighborhood September 25, 2018

Trees felled by the Thursday evening storm block the entrance to Wapacuta Park up the hill and within a block of my home.

 

AS CLEAN-UP CONTINUES in southern Minnesota, the National Weather Service has now identified 10 tornado tracks, five of those in my county of Rice. The strongest, an EF2 tornado with winds of 111- 135 mph, occurred in Morristown some 10 miles to the west of Faribault. Folks in that small town lost homes. The remaining nine were identified as EF1 tornadoes with winds of 86 – 110 mph. The nearest tornado occurred northwest of Faribault in the Roberds Lake area up to Interstate 35 by the Faribault airport, which was destroyed.

 

One of many fallen trees along about a two-block section of Fourth Avenue Southwest.

 

The damage in Faribault neighborhoods, including mine, was apparently caused by straight-line winds/downbursts. Sunday afternoon Randy and I drove along Fourth Avenue Southwest, a few blocks up the hill from our home. It is one of my favorite neighborhoods with a tree-lined street fronting many stately old houses. The area has always reminded me of the beautiful homes along Lake Harriet in south Minneapolis.

 

Fallen trees, limbs and branches edge Fourth Avenue Southwest.

 

A tree yanked from the ground along Fourth Avenue Southwest.

 

More fallen trees along the avenue…

 

Now the landscape of perhaps two blocks of Fourth Avenue looks much different with so many trees fallen or damaged. In many parts of Faribault, there is no evidence that a storm ever hit. I’ve seen only widespread pockets of damage that affect a block or two or three, no more.

 

Taking a pause from tree removal Sunday afternoon near the Wapacuta Park playground.

 

Evidence of energy crews working in my neighborhood for 1 1/2 days to restore power.

 

A look at damage to a neighbor’s property where a tree landed on his garage.

 

Chainsaws buzz as folks and tree removal services continue with clean-up.

 

We piled branches from a large fallen limb onto the boulevard for city pick-up next week. Our friend is keeping large hunks of wood (stacked on our driveway) for firewood.

 

Sunday afternoon Randy and I focused on our own backyard, where a large branch broke off a neighbor’s tree and fell into in a small wooded section of our property. It didn’t hit our garage. But limbs loom above a neighbor’s house. Randy cut branches while I hauled them curbside before our friend Steve arrived with a chainsaw. Steve is Paul Bunyan strong with a heart of gold, always willing to help anyone. Anytime. Saturday he led a crew (including Randy and me) removing a fallen tree from our friend Lisa’s house where three trees uprooted, one landing on her house. Even with 16 people, the job of removing a single tree and branches took several hours.

 

Along Third Avenue Southwest by Wapacuta Park.

 

Sunday Randy and I worked several hours on the fallen limb in our yard. After we were well into the project, I learned that the city of Faribault is doing a curbside tree branch pick-up beginning October 1. But they won’t take anything longer than four feet. Alright then. I may be sorting through the pile…

As I write on Sunday evening, Randy is back at our friend’s house helping Steve load chunks of tree trunk and limbs…

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Faribault: The storm, the aftermath, the stories of kindness September 22, 2018

A tree fell onto these vehicles in my neighborhood during storms Thursday evening.

 

TORNADOES TERRIFY ME. So when severe weather, with the possibility of tornadoes, was forecast for southern Minnesota Thursday afternoon into evening, I felt a bit on edge. Not overly worried. But with the underlying thought that storms could happen here.

They did.

 

On the side street by my home, crews strategize the day after the storm.

 

Multiple confirmed tornadoes touched down in southern Minnesota Thursday evening, including one near Faribault. My community of some 24,000 was also hard hit by strong winds of up to 110 mph which destroyed the airport and ravaged my Willow Street/Tower Place/First Avenue Southwest neighborhood and many other neighborhoods.

 

The front page of the Faribault Daily News, September 22, 2018.

 

Two Faribault men are recovering from injuries sustained when a tree fell on them during the storm, according to a report in the Faribault Daily News.

In nearby small towns, it’s a similar story with downed trees and power lines and damage to vehicles and homes. In Morristown, though, homes were leveled and others uninhabitable.

From Granada to Cannon Falls, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms swept a swath of destruction across the landscape—demolishing farm buildings, flattening crops, downing too many trees and power lines to count.

Those stories I’ve read online and in print. The stories I’m sharing today are mine from observations and conversations. These are the stories that touched my heart, that even made me cry. But first, I’ll start with the sirens sounding and then, the storm.

 

My next-door neighbor’s flag was ripped from the pole, landing in the top of an evergreen.

 

THE STORM

It’s around 6:15 p.m. Thursday and I’ve just finished the dinner dishes. Randy is deciding whether to replace the radiator in our car or head to the basement to work on a stained glass window project for our church. He chooses the window.

He has just stepped into the shower when emergency warning sirens begin blasting. I look outside to a sky that seems anything but threatening. I switch on the TV. A tornado warning for Rice County and many other Minnesota counties scrolls across the bottom of the screen. I turn on the radio. The announcer warns listeners to seek shelter immediately with precise times the storms are expected to hit each community. Target time in Faribault is 10 minutes. I storm into the bathroom. As is typical with Randy, he shows little hurry, little concern, about the storm warning.

I already feel my anxiety rising. He did not witness the aftermath of a killer tornado that claimed nine lives and injured 125 in Tracy, Minnesota, in June 1968. I did. A tornado also hit my family farm and my hometown years after that. I grew up with a respect for tornadoes. I hope I can convince him this is serious.

As Randy showers, I close windows, gather flashlights, scoop up my camera bag and external hard drive. Within that 10-minute time frame we are in the basement with our cellphones, the radio tuned to the local station, airing its usual 6:30 p.m. reciting of the Rosary. I want local up-to-date weather news.

 

This image shows the conduit and power line ripped from our house, the wire lying across the driveway. Randy backed the van across the neighbor’s lawn to get out.

 

It doesn’t matter. Not long after, a loud bang sounds and the power goes out.

Randy continues cutting stained glass while I worry and text our daughter traveling in California. We hear and see little in our basement with two glass block windows. It’s probably better that way. But when I hear a roar, I ask whether that is rolling thunder or the signature tornado sound of a train. Randy says thunder, but not with significant confidence. Sirens continue to wail off and on for nearly 40 minutes. I’ve never heard emergency warning sirens blare that often for that long. Ever. I understand this is serious.

Our phones blast emergency alerts: Tornado Warning in this area til 7:00 PM CDT. Take shelter now. Check local media.–NWS

To say I am terrified would be accurate. I continue to text family who are keeping us updated from media accounts. We are trying to conserve our cellphone batteries with no way to charge them.

Around 7:10 p.m., we emerge from the basement to survey the damage.

 

Energy crews are working long shifts, up to 16 hours one worker said, to restore power in Faribault and neighboring towns. We were without electricity for 26 hours. Power could be out for 4 – 5 days for some people.

 

THE AFTERMATH

We are fortunate. In the last remnants of daylight, we see that the power line and meter are ripped from our house, the line slicing diagonally across our driveway behind the van. Everywhere, across our arterial street and up side streets, trees block roadways. It’s a mess.

As rain falls, we walk a half-block in the dark, my concern mounting that we could encounter fallen power lines. I don’t feel safe. Traffic is metro rush hour heavy and I wonder why the heck all these people are out and about. A man directs traffic around a fallen tree blocking a lane of Willow Street.

There is nothing we can do. Damage assessment will come at daybreak.

 

Across the street along Willow Street early Friday morning.

 

DAY BREAKS

We are up early after a restless night of little sleep. In the light of morning, we see trees down everywhere in our neighborhood. Passing by the remnants of a fallen tree, Randy points to three squirrels clinging to the trunk. They are shaking.

 

A half block from my home trees fell onto two vehicles along First Avenue Southwest.

 

Up the hill, just a half-block away, a tree lies across a car and a van in a driveway. We chat with the homeowner, who says both can be replaced. Life can’t. It’s a theme we hear repeated.

 

Across from our house along Willow Street.

 

 

Crews line Tower Place, the side street by my house, as they work all day Friday and also into Saturday.

 

A downed tree blocks First Avenue Southwest a short distance from our house at its intersection with Tower Place.

 

A young man pauses to talk to us. He’s checking on his brother. At one point during our conversation, I mention that we are conserving our cellphone power. He continues up the hill. Within 10 minutes, he approaches us as we chat with an elderly neighbor. “Here, I want you to have this,” Xavion says and hands me a cellphone charger. “God bless you.” I am crying at the kindness of this young father. He asks to pray with us. So there we are, the morning after the storm, standing in our neighbor’s front yard, the four of us circled, hands joined, Xavion praying. It will not be the first time of circled prayer. This marks a profoundly powerful moment for me, this giving of thanks by a kind stranger in the aftermath of the storm.

 

Three trees fell at my friend Lisa’s house, one against her house. This tree will be removed by professionals. Two others were removed by a friend and a crew of workers including Randy and me.

 

MORE KINDNESS

I expect many in my community could share similar stories of kindness. At Basilleos Pizza on Friday evening, Manager Connie tells us how, earlier in the day, staff baked 30 pizzas and then gave them to random people working on storm clean-up.

Saturday morning my friend Lisa’a neighbor drops off bottled water for the crew of 16 assisting with tree clean-up. Several others also bring water and another friend drops off scalloped potatoes, grapes and homemade cookies.

 

A city worker carries a chainsaw to clear a tree from a street in my neighborhood late Friday afternoon.

 

City crews clear away a tree blocking First Avenue Southwest.

 

The buzz of chainsaws is nearly constant throughout Faribault.

 

City crews continue tree clean-up.

 

An email went out the afternoon prior to show up at 9 a.m. at Lisa’s house. Three teens arrive with their dad and grandparents. A couple who live nearby also come; they’d stopped by on Friday with Klondike bars after losing power. Hours later when we’ve finished clean-up, we gather in a circle, all of us holding hands, the nearby neighbor—a pastor I would learn afterward—leading us in prayer.

 

Still working along Tower Place.

 

A shot through my dining room window of Xcel Energy crew members working on lines to reconnect to our house.

 

At the end of our driveway, workers prepare to string new power lines.

 

We have much to be thankful for. Each other. Protection. A beautiful Saturday of sunshine. Caring neighbors and co-workers and friends and strangers and professionals. It is said that difficult times bring out the best in people. I witnessed that firsthand in Faribault in the aftermath of this storm.

 

FYI: You won’t see photos of damage outside my neighborhood (except at my friend’s house) as local officials advise gawkers to stay out of storm-damaged areas.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling