Storm stories: A look back at the June 17 tornado

Published 4:03 pm Saturday, October 10, 2009

It was three innings into his softball game on the evening of June 17 when Steve Leif noticed very ominous skies approaching from the north toward Todd Park.

Stationed in left field, Leif said to himself, “Boy, those clouds don’t look so good.”

He said he then saw players from other games running off the fields — some to their cars, others to shelter in the bathroom.

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Leif headed to the bathroom, where he waited out the duration of a tornado that touched down in Austin that night.

“It was pretty scary,” Leif said.

Now nearly four months removed from the category EF2 twister, which caused roughly $4 million in damage to local businesses, Leif and others share their storm stories — and Austin continues to rebuild.

A ‘war zone’

As Leif waited in the bathroom with 20 to 25 others, he said he watched the tornado wreak havoc from the window.

First, he noticed garbage barrels whipping by, then, the bleachers began to move.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this is serious,’ ” Leif said.

As the wind picked up, dust from the diamond began to swirl wildly.

“It felt like a sand blaster,” Leif noted.

With the extreme change in pressure, he said he felt his ears pop a few times.

Also in the bathroom with Leif was Chad Johnson, who was at-bat on a different field when the storm arrived.

“(The umpire and I) both looked at each other and said, ‘We gotta get outta here,’ ” Johnson said.

His leg hurting some from the game, Johnson said he decided to go the shorter distance to the bathroom rather than running to his car.

“We tucked back in there,” he said.

About 20 to 30 minutes later, the tornado had passed and those sheltered in the bathroom returned to the park.

“It was a shock,” Johnson said of seeing the aftermath. “Amazing how much damage it did.”

Leif said he came away feeling lucky.

“We didn’t realize at that point how much danger we were in,” he said. “It was a war zone.”

Today, the 44-year-old bank manager said he still thinks about June 17 when he sees Todd Park.

“When I drive past the fields and I see how bald it is, I say, ‘Wow,’” Leif said. “There’s nothing left.”

On its way back

With the number of trees ripped up from Todd Park, it certainly looks bald, but the park is on its way back.

Two weeks ago, a number of organizations gathered to replant some of the many trees lost — parks and recreation direction Kim Underwood estimates that roughly half of the park’s trees were destroyed in the tornado.

People chipping in time and effort to replant will help, but Underwood knows the park won’t come all the way back overnight.

“It’s just a matter of time,” she said.

The damage canceled a girls fast-pitch softball tournament June 20-21, but the diamonds were opened shortly thereafter.

The rest of the park was a different story — because of holes from uprooted trees or branches dangling precariously, Todd Park as a whole was closed until late August.

“It was pretty bad,” Underwood said.

Trees aren’t the only thing that will need attention at the park — new fencing is in place, but the dugouts and lighting will need work.

The new lighting for the ball fields, as well as trees downed within 100 feet of a structure, should be covered by insurance — and could very well be the city’s biggest expenditures related to the tornado, administrative services director Tom Dankert said.

To date, the city has spent roughly $235,000 — a cost that should mostly be covered by insurance, Dankert said — repairing stop lights, roofs and other items damaged in the storm, but Dankert expects the final number to be “significantly north of that.”

Dankert and city engineer Jon Erichson said they hope to have a better idea of the damage costs within 30 days.

Nature center replants, rebuilds

The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center is also dealing with cleanup of its own.

The tornado ripped through the center’s grounds, destroying an estimated 300 trees, according to director Larry Dolphin.

The storm also slammed into the visitor center, punching a hole into the roof and knocking out a side window.

“My office got a good cleaning today,” Dolphin said jokingly the morning after the tornado.

Indeed, the hole in the roof was almost directly above the director’s office, and though it was covered with a blue tarp soon after, water problems plagued the nature center for the next few months.

Julie Champlin, who is Dolphin’s assistant, said at times there were 15 buckets on the floor to collect dripping water.

“It was so dirty,” Champlin said. “(And) the smell in here was pretty pungent.”

A new roof that was completed in late August ended the leaking problem, but all the water had left the carpet moldy and tattered, so that was replaced, too.

Champlin said installation of the new carpet was finished Oct. 2.

With the major repairs complete, nature center staff are now working on reorganizing — they’re putting books back on shelves and possibly swapping a few rooms.

Dolphin said when all of that is complete, he hopes to have an improved nature center, which he said is sort of a silver lining to the tornado.

“We try to take a positive approach to it,” he said. “What else can you do?”

The grounds of the center will take more time — though Dolphin and others have put in a number of hours clearing logs, dangling branches and snapped limbs, much work remains.

“I know it just takes time,” Dolphin said. “It’s a process.”

The director said it’s fortunate that the northern two-thirds or so of the grounds were untouched, but there are about three or four pockets of trees that sustained heavy damage, enough to close the center’s trails for about a week after the storm.

Within the next year, Dolphin said he hopes to have those areas pretty well cleared, though some downed logs will likely be left for animals to live in.

“That’ll be part of the story,” he said.

Near the visitor center, grass seed has been spread in patches where trees were ripped away, but Dolphin said he hopes to replant in those spots soon.

Everything damaged

When asked what parts of his business got damaged in the tornado, Dan Morem has a simple answer.


Morem, who owns Morem Tree Service on Fourth Street Northwest, said nine sheds were hit, his barn was destroyed and siding on the main office was ripped off.

Building work wrapped up just last week, Morem said, and there’s still plenty of reorganizing to do.

“Everything is shaping up,” he said. “A couple more weeks and we’ll be dialed in.”

On the night of June 17, Morem said he watched the tornado coming in from his nearby house. Seeing it hit his barn — and knowing his son, Mitch, was inside — Dan Morem went over to his business right away.

Mitch Morem was not injured.

“We’re lucky, very lucky,” Dan Morem said.

But the damage to the property was heavy, and Dan Morem said there were about 90 loads of junk to haul away from the sheds alone.

“It’s 30 some years of work gone in a matter of minutes,” he said.

Dan Morem said he considered not rebuilding at all because of the work that had to be done, but he decided that ultimately wasn’t an option.

“I’m only 55. There’s a long time until I’m dead,” Dan Morem said. “What else am I gonna do?”

For Dan Morem, the hardest part in rebuilding has been dealing with insurance.

He said a number of adjusters have come to his property, all to deal with a different type of damage. Dan Morem said proving what all was lost — and getting money for it — is frustrating.

“It’s a constant battle,” he said.

Because insurance dollars haven’t covered all the damage, Dan Morem said he’s poured plenty of his own money into the effort.

“It took our life savings to get these sheds back up,” he said.