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Published June 18, 2010, 11:15 AM

UPDATED: 'It's like a war zone': Public urged to stay out of heavily hit areas of Wadena

WADENA, Minn. - As cleanup continues in the aftermath of Thursday's tornado, officials urge the public to stay out of the most heavily hit areas of town.

By: Heidi Shaffer, INFORUM

WADENA, Minn. - As cleanup continues in the aftermath of Thursday's tornado, officials urge the public to stay out of the most heavily hit areas of town.

Access to the southwest area of this city of about 4,300 is limited today to emergency personnel because of the concerns about downed power lines, gas leaks and scattered debris, officials said this morning.

"It's devastating," Mayor Wayne Wolden said. "It's like a war zone."

Some residents are being allowed in the restricted area with a law enforcement escort.

Travelers along Highway 10 near Wadena are urged to find alternate routes to avoid traffic congestion through the city.

Wolden said residents should conserve water to ensure it's available in the coming days.

The city and county expect to declare a state of emergency today, Wolden said. About 40 National Guard soldiers were activated to help in cleanup efforts.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty will view damage from the air and meet with local officials this afternoon.

Pawlenty, during a news conference this afternoon, pledged state resources and said officials are working with the Federal Emergency and Management Agency on a preliminary damage assessment. He praised Wadena and surrounding communities for their "can-do" attitude.

"Minnesota has an unwavering, unbroken tradition of always working together in these challenges," he said.

A public meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. today at St. Anne's Catholic Church in Wadena.

Organizers for an all-school reunion planned for this weekend are still trying to determine if any events will be held.

Thirty-four people were treated for storm-related injuries. One person remains hospitalized with non-life threatening injuries, said Joel Beiswenger, CEO of Tri-County Health Care.

Officials said volunteers will start cleanup of trees and debris in some of the rural areas today, while law enforcement continue to clear roads within the city.

Wadena Mayor Wayne Wolden said sirens gave plenty of warning in his town, where the National Weather Service said a tornado struck around 5 p.m. Wolden said many people were there for an all-school reunion, according to The Associated Press.

The AP reported that 34 people were treated at Wadena's hospital for storm-related injuries, but as of this morning only one remained hospitalized with injuries that were not life-threatening. Nursing supervisor Kathy Kleen said many residents were at the hospital's pharmacy first thing this morning to replace prescription drugs they lost in the storm.

The AP reported:

Crews cleared debris and lumber from streets this morning. Residents were escorted to their homes to survey damage and gather important belongings, but officials said cleanup would probably not get into full swing until Saturday.

Crews worked overnight to control dozens of gas leaks, and all were contained by this morning. Wadena's community pool was destroyed, the high school "extremely busted up" and the community center beyond repair, Wolden said.

His wife, Lori Wolden, said houses were "half-gone" and "there's no trees" in the southwest part of the town, which was barricaded after the storm.

Patty Jones was evacuated from her apartment because of a gas leak and walked around Wadena before taking shelter at the local armory.

"It's terrible. It's whacked out. Nothing's left in one part of town," Jones said.

The Red Cross set up a shelter at the local armory in Wadena and another in Albert Lea.

State climatologist Greg Spoden said it would take the weather service days to verify tornado reports. He cautioned that reports of the state's biggest outbreak of tornadoes could be overblown because improvements in technology and communications mean more tornadoes are reported now than ever before.

Still, Spoden said, it was "a very, very extensive outbreak."

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