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Volunteers help a couple on Dupont Avenue clear a twisted stockade fence, remove tree limbs and debris from their property after their home and other structures in North Minneapolis were hit by a tornado May 22. A total of 2,000 people from the Twin Cities area and around the state did light cleanup work on June 4. Tribune photo by David Little

10 years after tornado struck Benson

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West Central Tribune
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Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

BENSON -- Kayla Williams' first job ended in a real disaster.

A tornado destroyed her place of employment.

Ten years later, Williams said she is happy to be back at work for her first employer, this time at the "new" Ahrndt 'U' Hungry restaurant in Benson.

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Williams is serving up new ice cream treats nicknamed "twisters'' in memory of the original Ahrndt 'U' Hungry restaurant destroyed by the Benson tornado on June 11, 2001.

Restaurant owner Diana Ahrndt had just celebrated her first year in business when the inky-black funnel ripped through the east side of Benson and all the way to DeGraff. By the end of that Monday afternoon, more than 40 structures were destroyed or severely damaged.

The F2 tornado twisted the Ahrndt 'U' Hungry restaurant on U.S. Highway 12, making it necessary to raze the building. The tornado inflicted even greater damage on the Viking Café next door. All that remained was the restaurant's walk-in cooler where owners Dennis and Donna Cookman had taken shelter. The manufactured home from which they had fled was gone, as were all of their possessions.

With only these and a few other exceptions, most of the homes, businesses and structures struck by the tornado were either repaired or replaced within a year.

Yet the tornado's longest comeback story belongs to Diana Ahrndt. After the tornado destroyed the restaurant, she took a job with the Benson schools and later as a kitchen supervisor with MeritCare in Fargo, N.D.

She wasn't expecting to get back into the business until her husband learned that the DeToy's restaurant building in Benson was going to be available for purchase. He asked her if she wanted to go back into the business.

She will celebrate her first year in the new Ahrndt 'U' Hungry restaurant --located in the former DeToy's building -- in October. "If there's no tornado,'' she said, laughing.

"It just felt right coming back to it,'' said Ahrndt. "I don't regret it.''

One of the quickest comeback stories from the tornado belongs to Dave Oglesby, who reopened his auto repair business the very day after the tornado struck.

Oglesby said he scurried from his shop to his home just yards away as the storm bore down and the sky turned a menacing green. "I just stood by the back door watching it until it took the door out of my hand,'' said Oglesby. "Then I went to the basement.''

The storm destroyed his shop building, and damaged his newly built three-stall garage and home. He can readily recall the day the roof went on the new shop: Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.

Mike Johnson, Swift County supervisor for parks, drainage and wetlands, took shelter in the county's highway building where he was working when the skies darkened. When they started to clear, Johnson thought the community had been spared -- and his early evening round of golf saved -- until he heard the radio report of damage on the community's east side where his home is located.

He made a frantic trip around downed tree limbs and was completely oblivious to the damage all around him until he saw his badly damaged home. Only then did he realize how everything around him looked like a war zone, he explained.

The tornado led to survivor stories like those of a war zone, too. A Willmar woman and her children were on Highway 12 as the storm struck and had to take shelter in a ditch, where they were battered by shards of glass and debris. One year later, they too had made a complete recovery.

Ten years later, there are really no visual scars to show for the damage in the community. City Administrator Rob Wolfington said that from today's perspective, the town can be thankful it escaped the scale of damage experienced this season in the Southeastern states and most recently in Joplin, Mo.

He said the economy was different in 2001. Benson was in the midst of a period of growth when the tornado struck. No doubt that helped with the community's relatively rapid recovery.

The town has no plans for an official event to commemorate the tornado's 10th anniversary, and for a reason. "We've moved on,'' said Wolfington, explaining that many prefer to put the bad memories behind them.

Yet there are also those who will be celebrating their recovery from it. With the exception of last year, when his mother had died, Oglesby has hosted a barbecue on the anniversary of the tornado for his neighbors and the businesses struck by it.

He's hosting the annual party again, and Diana Ahrndt is among those planning to be there.

As for going back into the business so long after the tornado struck, Ahrndt said: "It was a dream and the dream never dies. Things happen for reasons. It's kind of like its gone full circle.''

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Tom Cherveny
Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.
(320) 214-4335
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