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Friends, volunteers and businesses help families who lost their homes

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WILLMAR -- Recovery efforts were in full force over the weekend after a Friday evening twister ripped through two businesses on the southeast edge of Willmar and plowed down three rural homes and several turkey barns.

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Mild weather Saturday and Sunday helped the cleanup go well, but strong winds blew grit, field dirt and sawdust into eyes and faces to provide just one more reminder of the tornado that seemed to pop out of nowhere on Friday.

Hundreds of volunteers helped tornado victims take down trees, clean up debris, and cope with the Saturday morning reality of the devastation caused by the tornado.

"We've just had so much help today," said Joyce Randt, who watched with her husband, Kenneth, as volunteers kept a steady buzz of chainsaws, backhoes and loaders going.

The couple's thick, mature woods were totally destroyed in the tornado.

As scores of trees were being cut down behind her, Joyce Randt choked back tears as she watched the shredded trunk of a black walnut tree get quickly sawed down in what had been a beautiful front yard.

This is the farm where she grew up and her father had given her that black walnut tree as a sapling when she was little girl.

Besides the large grove of trees, the Randt's home, a unique round barn, a brick silo and a workshop that had been filled with welding tools and lawnmowers had vanished from the site. A snowmobile was found hanging 20 feet up in a tree and what clothes they could find were also in the trees.

Ken Randt said he'd worked for years to get the home place looking just right. One of their sons was in the process of buying the property.

Hardly anything remains of any of the structures now, but the family was buoyed by the presence of friends, neighbors, Red Cross, Salvation Army and local businesses that donated food and other items.

"We've had lots and lots of help," said Joyce Randt. "We've just had so much help today."

"There are a lot of good people out there," said Ken Randt.

Monica Erickson couldn't say enough kind words about the Willmar Fire Department and other emergency workers who helped her, her husband, Eric and their three children deal with the devastation at their home, located on Kandiyohi County Road 19. They even helped look for their dog, Derby, who was missing all night.

It's hard for Monica to recall the pain of Friday night. With the twister on the other side of their trees and debris already hitting their house, the family quickly pushed their way into their "very tiny basement" as they heard their one-year old Golden Lab barking in his outside kennel. There was no time to get him, and when the family emerged after the storm, the kennel was gone and so was Derby.

The found Derby Saturday morning and was taken to a veterinarian for treatment for a few scrapes and cuts.

Their dog was about the only thing that was spared at the Erickson's. The windows were blown out of the home and household items sucked out. The roof and at least two walls were bowed out. A large shed was blown away and vehicles were tossed about.

"It's all gone," said Erickson.

Two turkey barns on the property had also vanished. Most of the turkeys, however, survived and were corralled within the confines of an orange snow fence.

As Erickson spoke with an insurance agent stepped through the windowless front door, volunteers were cutting trees into firewood, nailing a plastic tarp over the roof and wall and Pizza Ranch was delivering food.

"Everybody just comes," said Erickson, amazed, as she looked at the work going on all around her. "There are so many people I can't even thank everybody.

Sgt. Paul Follmann, from the Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Department, said so many people volunteered to help Saturday morning that by noon capacity had been reached at the sites.

"Everyone wants to help their neighbors and friends," said Follmann, who was stopping traffic on County Road 19. After talking to the occupants to find out if they were there for a good reason or just to look at the damage, Follmann either made them turn around or allowed them to pass.

People like insurance agents, Red Cross volunteers or close neighbors and family got a big yellow "X" on their windshield, indicating they'd been cleared to travel down the road.

Help will be needed in the days to come, especially to help pick up debris from farm fields and shelter belts along the eight-mile path the tornado took. It will be impossible to harvest those fields, or to till them in the fall, unless they are cleaned.

Ryan and Joel Boonstra were pulling debris from a 20-acre corn field owned by their father and uncle just across the road from Arnolds of Willmar. Farm equipment from the implement dealer was scattered in the field, as well as debris from eight mobile homes that were destroyed at the nearby Kandi Mobile Home.

Two of those mobile homes had reportedly just been sold, with the paperwork completed earlier on Friday.

Along with the clean-up, those with destroyed or damaged homes will have to make some big decisions about where to live, whether to rebuild on the same spot or if their house can be repaired.

Kandiyohi County Emergency Management Director, Don Ericson, said four houses were determined to be "destroyed" by the tornado and four others had minor damage. Three turkey barns were destroyed and several others damaged. Two businesses, Arnolds of Willmar and Kandi Mobile Home, were also damaged.

Two employees at a turkey barn were the only individuals injured, and their injuries were minor.

Now that the storm assessment is done, Ericson said county building inspectors will be assisting homeowners with questions about the future of their homes and businesses.

While the damage was significant to those unfortunate enough to be in the tornado's path, Ericson said if the twister had decided to go north instead of south, numerous homes, neighborhoods and businesses could've been destroyed and many people could've been injured or killed.

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Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750
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