Safety a priority as cleanup begins in devastated Wadena
WADENA -- Safety continued to be the top priority here Friday as cleanup began in the aftermath of Thursday's tornadoes.
Officials restricted access to the southwest section of the city, the hardest-hit area where downed power lines, gas leaks and scattered debris remain a hazard.
"It's devastating," said Wayne Wolden, mayor of the town of 4,300. "It's like a war zone."
Law enforcement and city crews were working to clear roads in the restricted area, and cleanup in the surrounding areas was under way.
Crews from at least five cities were working Friday to get power restored to most areas of town by dark.
Officials warned that downed lines in the southwest part of town should be considered live and dangerous.
Judy Jacobs, public information officer for the state Department of Transportation, said it won't be safe for volunteers until at least early next week. Travelers and volunteers are being asked to stay away from Wadena to allow crews access into areas.
"Be patient," Jacobs said. "We very much appreciate their concern and their interest, but it's a little premature at this point."
Residents in the restricted area had to secure a pass from the sheriff's office to get to their homes, and officials say they will not allow anyone in to start cleanup until the area is deemed safe.
Thirty-four people were treated for storm-related injuries.
Law enforcement and city officials will update residents on safety and cleanup in a meeting at 3 p.m. today.
Several structures in the southwest part of town, including the community center, high school, a cemetery and church, were either destroyed or severely damaged.
A survey of the Wadena high school Friday revealed the building is "unpassable," Mayor Wolden said at a public meeting.
High school principal Tyler Church said he anticipates classes won't be held there next year.
"It's pretty much destroyed," Church said of the school that houses 500 students in grades 7 through 12.
Officials have temporarily set up shop at the elementary school, which had little damage, Church said.
The first priority for officials is to work with the families who lost their homes and worry about the school next week, he said.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who surveyed the damage Friday from a helicopter, said it looked like the tornado sat down on Wadena.
"The scope of the geographic impact of this disaster is as large as any we've seen," Pawlenty said.
The governor pledged National Guard support and other state resources for areas affected by the nearly 40 tornado touchdowns reported across the state Thursday night. Officials were working to confirm those tornadoes, Pawlenty said.
Kris Eide, the state's emergency management director, said she was talking to Federal Emergency Management Agency officials to get a preliminary damage assessment as soon as possible.
Unlike in the case of a flood, most people have insurance that covers tornado damage and that will be the first line of defense, Pawlenty said.
Pawlenty praised Wadena and neighboring residents for helping each other and their "can-do" attitude.
"Minnesota has an unwavering, unbroken tradition of always working together in these challenges," Pawlenty said.
Cleanup in rural areas was aided by volunteers, including about 80 from eight Home Depots in the area. As part of the Team Depot program, employees travel to areas affected by natural disasters to help homeowners clean up the wreckage.
Wadena is the first disaster for volunteer Noah Danielson, who works at the Willmar store.
"It feels good to help people," he said. "It might not be much, but it's taking away some of that stress."
Heidi Shaffer and Amy Dalrymple write for the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.