From one tornado-ravaged Minnesota town to another, a message of hope

Published 9:16 am Thursday, June 2, 2022

By Tim Nelson

As the residents of one small Minnesota town pick up the pieces of homes and lives shattered by Monday’s storms, residents of another town who are walking that path have a hopeful message.

Dozens of homes in Forada, Minn., were damaged or destroyed by an EF2 tornado on Monday — about seven weeks after another EF2 tornado destroyed about half the homes in Taopi, Minn.

“Keeping spirits up and looking to the future, I think is just what sustains you day to day,” said Mary Huntley, mayor of Taopi, a community of fewer than 100 people located in Mower County near the Iowa border.

“Small towns are great at coming together and rebuilding together,” she said. “There has been no one left alone to rake their own yard, you know? Everybody’s always helping each other.”

And now helping another town in need. Huntley and her brother, Taopi’s city clerk, drove up to Forada on Wednesday to offer advice and bring donations to help set up a food shelf and dining area where the community can come together.

“Very, very, very helpful,” Forada Mayor David Reller said after the visit. “Like one mayor coming together with another. ‘This is our experience. And, you know, here’s what some of the things we wish we had done.’ And it’s like, wow! And then she brought some shelving, with some of the donated items of food, (so) we can actually start kind of organizing it better. And a little bit more advice. And doggone, it was great.”

Lessons from Taopi

Most of the severely damaged homes and the debris have been cleared in Taopi, Huntley said, and most residents are planning to rebuild. There’s gratitude that no one was seriously hurt in Taopi — just as no one was seriously hurt in Forada, a community of fewer than 200 people near Alexandria.

“Everybody really is excited about returning. Everybody’s really proud to say we’re coming back,” she said.

But it hasn’t been easy for Taopi. And it wasn’t a certainty in the immediate wake of the storm.

“We knew that the people would want to stay and we just had to keep their hope alive (so) that they wouldn’t give up in that moment,” Huntley said. “When you look out and see — your house is gone, your garage is gone, all your cars are gone, your camper is gone, your pool is gone. You know, you’ve just got to keep their hope up at that moment. And that’s what we did.”

She said emergency managers and other officials from Mower County, neighboring counties and the state were helpful in figuring out what needed to be done, and when. Huntley praised utility crews who worked nonstop to restore service.

While it can be tough for affected residents to figure out a way forward, she advised people in Forada — or any town affected by a disaster — to not be shy about asking for specific help, and accepting the outpouring of offers.

“Tell us what will help you. Because otherwise, volunteers are out there just scrambling,” Huntley said. “They want so badly to help people, but you don’t always know what will help. And my best people are the ones who just tell me, ‘Yeah, I need a hand here. I just need someone to come and pick up this tree from my yard today.’“

Help for Forada

Reller, the mayor of Forada, said one piece of advice he got from Huntley was to set up a community tornado fund, to help residents with expenses not covered by insurance. He said a fund has now been established at Hometown Community Bank in Forada.

Another was to “keep out and about” in the community, “which is what I’m doing in between time to attend to my own home,” he said.

“I’ve been going around talking to all the residents letting them know about all the progress we’re making with some of the agencies, and we’re thinking of everybody,” Reller said. “And you know, just touching — they want to be touched. A number of hugs have been given out.”

Back in Taopi, Huntley said that ongoing connection and communication was vital after their storm. The town had nightly meetings in the wake of the tornado, with food for residents, where they regrouped and looked forward.

“I would stand up and say, ‘Here’s what we got done today. Here’s what we’re going to keep working on.’ And you know, just keep telling them, ‘This is going to be OK.’ Because there’s people who couldn’t quit crying for three days,” she said. “Literally, I know all these people, so I could give them a hug and say, ‘We’re not leaving you. And you’re going to manage, because we’re going to help you get back.’ And that’s exactly what’s happening.”