Months after tornado, crews still chip away

Published 12:37 pm Saturday, April 10, 2010

With tree cleanup at the tornado-ravaged Jay C. Hormel Nature Center only about one-quarter of the way done now 10 months removed from the storm, having some good help on-site this past week must have been a welcome sight for the center’s staff, supporters and visitors.

A crew from the Conservation Corps Minnesota, a non-profit that trains young men and women for an assortment of natural resources jobs, took to the nature center from Tuesday to Friday, working on cutting and clearing a myriad of fallen, dangling, and gnarled trees.

The five-man team, led by district manager Doug Ekstrom, will return in November for Round 2 at the nature center after a hard week’s work in Austin.

Ekstrom, who has been a district manager for four years after being a corps member before that, said the corps is a great program for young men and women interested in outdoors careers who want to get their feet wet.

“I had a great experience when I was a corps member,” he said, and now “I really enjoy getting out in the field and teaching the things I know.”

Those who worked under Ekstrom in Austin ranged from more seasoned corps members to rookies like Mike Burg, 23, who said he just started on Monday.

“It’s been great,” the Wisconsin native said. “I enjoy being outside and working.”

Burg and others were faced with a stiff challenge at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center. Because of the sheer volume of trees on-site, many of those that fell are caught up in other trees’ branches, making for some potentially dangerous situations. As such, Ekstrom’s crew was careful to attack areas slowly.

In some instances, their chainsaws and manpower weren’t enough to deal with the damage. One fallen tree just past the center’s visitor building proved to be problematic on Friday afternoon, leading crew members to rope off the area and wait for heavier machinery to come in.

Ekstrom said dealing with tornado-ravaged areas poses problems that other wooded areas don’t because a storm will toss timber everywhere.

“It’s a little trickier than just walking into a bunch of trees,” he said.

Nate Lawrence-Richards, the 23-year-old crew leader, said the topography of the nature center also posed its share of challenges.

“The uneven terrain has been a bit of an issue,” he said.

However, the hard work didn’t overwhelm Lawrence-Richards. New to the corps this year, the Iowa native said the experience has been very rewarding.

“It’s been enlightening, really,” Lawrence-Richards said, adding that he would like to pursue an outdoors-related career and would strongly consider working for the corps — which runs 10-month terms at a time — in coming years.

Larry Dolphin, the center’s director, certainly has had a rewarding experience with the corps as well. With $8,000 being spent for them to come this past week and again in November, Dolphin said he was getting a lot of good work for his buck.

The director praised the corps members for being well-trained, safe and efficient.

“They’re good workers, very conscientious,” Dolphin said.

Despite the hard work by corps members, Dolphin said he still expects it to take at least another year to completely clean-up trees felled by last June’s twister. And after that, it will take many more decades for replanted trees to fully replace what was lost.

“The hardest part (of the storm aftermath) for me is still the trees,” Dolphin said. “Because it takes so long to get them back.”

Dolphin certainly makes a good point. The visitor center, which had a gaping hole in the roof and numerous shattered windows after the storm, has been remodeled and rebuilt. In fact, the damage actually gave Dolphin and staff the chance to make some improvements to the building, something Dolphin called a “silver lining” of the tornado.

But the downed trees are a different story, which is evident just by stepping foot on the center’s grounds and seeing all the twisted limbs that remain. Still, Dolphin — perhaps more than most — understands that tornados are an unavoidable part of nature.

“You don’t want it to happen,” he said. “But when it does, you deal with it.”