Wadena students recover from EF-4 tornado

The three EF-4 tornadoes that swept through Minnesota June 16 killed three people, demolished parts of Albert Lea and Wadena, and destroyed the home of St. Thomas junior Justin Tucker.

Everything but Justin Tucker's garage and back entryway was flattened by the tornado. (Photo courtesy: Yalonda Nelson/Wadena, Minn.)

Tucker was staying at his St. Paul house when the storm hit his hometown, but was preparing to head home for the weekend.

“I had my car packed up,” Tucker said. “I was suppose to go up and spend the weekend with them and decided at the last minute not to.”

But even though Tucker was lucky enough to avoid the storm, his family members were stuck in their house in Wadena, directly in the path of the storm.

His family went to the basement when they heard the sirens. The upstairs window shattered and the family dog ran upstairs. Tucker’s dad, Rod Tucker, chased after the dog and as soon as he got to the living room, the house collapsed.

“He was in a spot where some of the ceilings were kind of beamed up a little bit so he wasn’t necessarily squished,” Tucker said.

His dad saw a small opening and crawled out the 16-by-16 inch hole. He escaped the house and storm chasers driving by took care of him. He suffered bumps, scrapes and a minor back injury.

Although 20 people were treated at the hospital, only one person needed to stay overnight.

“With the amount of damage that Wadena sustained I can’t believe that nobody was injured, so we were all really lucky for that,” Tucker said.

Recovery is “slow process”

Tucker said the town looked like something out of the movie “Twister”.

“Nothing looked the same. All of the trees, they were literally blown over. There was debris everywhere,” Tucker said. “Most of the houses had extensive damages; if not, they were completely destroyed.”

Winds reaching 170 mph swept the roof off the local high school, severely damaged the community center and destroyed more than 200 homes.

“My sister ended up getting interviewed in front of our house and that’s when it really hit me that our house was really destroyed,” Tucker said. “Our house is all to the ground.”

Very few items in his house were salvageable and his family is now clearing everything out.

“Everyone is helping everyone,” he said. “People were always nice to each other like you would expect in a small town, but through this, it’s just amazing.”

Sophomore Katie Anderson was in her house in Wadena when the tornado struck. Her house wasn’t heavily damaged, so she spent the days after the storm helping close friends repair their homes and cleaning up debris in the town.

“Seeing my lifelong town of 4,300 people severely damaged was shocking and overwhelming,” Anderson said. “You never expect it to happen to your town, and when it does, it puts you into shock.”

Because there was no electricity and no one could watch news broadcasts, nobody in Wadena really grasped how extensive the damage was at first, Anderson said. She said the town still doesn’t feel “normal,” and although a town curfew has been lifted and cleanup efforts are winding down, there’s still lots to be done.

“I have been helping good family friend[s] clean up their house,” she said. “We cleaned out their house the first weekend and then worked on clearing out the debris from their yard. Their house is now unlivable and being bulldozed this week….The rest of the summer will be spent recovering from the tornado.”

Tucker will live in St. Paul all summer, and his family is renting a house until they can find a permanent one. His dad is deciding whether to rebuild on the property, have a custom home brought in or purchase a new house.

“I just want people to know that my family is all doing good and it’s going to be a slow process to try to fully recover from,” Tucker said.

Michael Ewen can be reached at mtewen@stthomas.edu.

Theresa Malloy contributed to this story.