Update: ‘It was roaring’

Published 2:45 pm Friday, April 15, 2022

TAOPI — Taopi residents continued picking up the pieces of their homes Friday after a line of storms producing several tornadoes plowed through the tiny community east of Adams Tuesday.

Confirmed earlier this week by the National Weather Service out of LaCrosse, the damage to the community of just over 60 was caused by a confirmed EF2 tornado, one of five tornadoes that spawned in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa Tuesday night.

Nearly the entire western half of Taopi took a direct hit from the tornado, tearing up trees and ripping apart homes including one home that had the entire east side sheared off as if by a knife.

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According to Mower County Sheriff Steve Sandvik, of the 24 buildings in the community, 10 homes are a complete loss.

Another had major damage and three sustained minor damage, leaving only seven homes in Taopi largely undamaged.

“We’re continuing to meet with the residents,” Sandvik said. “The Emergency Management team is meeting with residents, working with the mayor and continuing with a plan for recovery.”

Mower County Emergency Management Director Amy Lammey confirmed Friday that power had been restored to the homes that could receive the power, which accounted for residences on the east side of Taopi.

Gov. Tim Walz toured Taopi on Thursday along with Rep. Patricia Mueller and County Commissioner Polly Glynn.

“He just wanted to be supportive in the recovery effort,” Lammey said. “We talked about infrastructure and how we were going to repair it.”

Taopi Mayor Mary Huntley said the gesture of Walz’s visit meant a lot to the beleaguered community.

“We were very happy to see him,” Huntley said Friday. “He told us we were not in this alone.”

Huntley said she mentioned to Walz that she was taken aback by just how many people were taking notice of tiny Taopi.

“He said, ‘The only important thing is you’re a part of our state,’” Huntley said.

Lammey said that they are receiving state assistance in helping the town recover its infrastructure needs. Damage in that area has exceeded the $82,000 needed to trigger state funding used specifically for infrastructure.

At this time Lammey said they are not utilizing any volunteers that don’t have a connection to Taopi for safety reasons as more and more heavy equipment is used in clean up efforts.

Thanks to other relief efforts by communities like Adams, the county is also not accepting donations at this point, however, a relief fund is available at the United Farmers State Bank in Adams.

The entire effort is indicative of how Taopi is rallying.

“I’m seeing a small town, huge heart,” Lammey said. “Our first responders, our fire departments, cities and other agencies are coming to me and asking, ‘what can I do?’ [Thursday] a good 10 hours everybody was moving trees and getting it into big piles.”

The NWS estimates winds from the tornado that struck Taopi peaked at over 130 mph and was on the ground for a little over seven miles.

Counting Taopi, the NWS’ survey of Tuesday’s tornadoes in southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa include:

• An EF1 set down near Spring Valley with max winds of 100 mph. It was on the ground for 2.3 miles.

• An EF1 set down near Brownville, Iowa with max winds of 110 mph. It was on the ground for 2.2 miles.

• An EF1 set down near Riceville, Iowa, with max winds of 100 mph. It was on the ground for 5.3 miles.

• An EF0 set down near Saratoga, Iowa, with max winds of 75 mph. It was on the ground for just under a quarter of a mile.

Two Taopi residents were injured and had to be rescued from the basement of their damaged home. They were taken to Mayo Clinic Health Systems-Austin Tuesday night for non-life threatening injuries.

Angie Smith, a resident of Taopi, said her family’s home was damaged, but not to the extent some of her neighbors experienced.

“I’m overwhelmed. I’m thankful,” she said. “We’re one of the lucky ones. All of our neighbors had to go somewhere else.”

Storms started impacting the area earlier in the evening Tuesday. The National Weather Service had placed Mower County in a tornado watch from around 7:30 p.m. until midnight on Tuesday, one of several severe watches and warnings to blanket the area.

According to a press release Wednesday morning from Sandvik, a tornado warning was issued for southeast Mower County at around 10:37 p.m.

“Shortly after that warning, 911 calls regarding multiple damaged homes and trapped residents from the Taopi area were received,” Sandvik said. “The Mower County Sheriff’s Office, Adams Fire, LeRoy Fire and other mutual aid partners responded to the calls. Mower County Public Works and local utility companies responded to downed power lines, gas leaks and debris.”

Smith said the entire episode happened in a short amount of time. She said that her home lost power at around 10:45 p.m. and the storm came through 10 minutes after that.

“It was roaring,” she said. “The moment we ran through to the basement we heard windows shattering. We were down in the basement for maybe a minute.”

However, for that brief time period, the damage was extensive. Aside from the damage to the town, downed trees could also be seen along Highway 56 as you drove into Taopi from the west.

Just south of Highway 56, a farm property also showed heavy damage.

Astoundingly, there were no major injuries or worse, deaths.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who suffered a loss, but so thankful this wasn’t worse,” Sandvik said later Wednesday afternoon. “Very gratified with all of the people stepping up. Neighbors helping neighbors.”

Sandvik also said Wednesday afternoon that a majority of the damage in Mower County was largely confined to Taopi itself.

“There wasn’t significant damage beyond the Taopi area,” he said. “There were still some limbs and trees down, but nothing like there was in Taopi.”

Aside from heavy rains, Austin largely escaped the worst of the storms; however, Austin Police Chief David McKichan in a press release of his own reported that some branches and tree debris were reported.

Although, it does appear that a heavily localized downburst on Sixth Street NW between Eighth and 13th Ave. NW caused more damage.

“There were some bigger trees sheared off or pushed over here and the overnight staff I spoke to [Wednesday morning] said a camper had been ‘imploded,’’ McKichan said.

This round of storms comes almost exactly four months to the day that freak storms rolled through southeast Minnesota on Dec. 15, 2021, causing severe damage to the eastern part of the county, knocking out power in Austin and devastating the small community of Hartland, north of Albert Lea.

That system included a rash of tornadoes and wind gusts as high as 85 mph in places and caused over $500,000 in damage to the county. Many places that were damaged are still coping with the consequences.

It’s a sign of how long lasting the recovery could be for Taopi.

“It will take a long time for these families to recover and move back into their homes,” Sandvik said.

The residents are just thankful for the next day.

“Honestly, I have to keep telling myself everybody is safe,” Smith said. “It’s just stuff.”