Northwood is renewed but different 10 years after an EF4 tornado ripped through town

NORTHWOOD, N.D.-As mayor of Northwood in 2007, Rick Johnson remembers the reaction of many people when city officials and others held a tornado drill."We went and laid some barriers out in the road saying, 'This is a fallen tree,' and I think eve...
Rick Johnson talks about what it was like being mayor during the 2007 Northwood tornado. His business, much like the rest of the town, was heavily damaged during the EF4 torando that ripped through the city. Joshua Komer / Forum News Service

NORTHWOOD, N.D.-As mayor of Northwood in 2007, Rick Johnson remembers the reaction of many people when city officials and others held a tornado drill.

"We went and laid some barriers out in the road saying, 'This is a fallen tree,' and I think even the hospital and nursing home participated with victims," Johnson recalls. "Guys all laughed and said, 'Yeah, when are we ever going to use this?' "

Unfortunately, the opportunity came shortly after 8:45 p.m. on Aug. 26, 2007, when a tornado packing winds of 170 mph ripped through the community about 40 miles southwest of Grand Forks, killing 57-year-old Larry Weisz and injuring 18 other people.

The National Weather Service later rated the tornado as an EF4, the second most severe category on the Enhanced Fujita scale, meaning winds of 166 mph to 200 mph.

According to Grand Forks Herald archives, 431 of the 460 homes in the community of about 1,000 people sustained at least some damage in the Sunday night catastrophe. Of that number, 57 homes were destroyed, 73 had major damage, and another 300 sustained either minor damage or somehow were affected by the disaster.

The tornado leveled Agvise Laboratories, a soil-testing firm and one of Northwood's largest employers, and the school was damaged beyond repair. Gabriel Construction, another major employer, also was destroyed.

Those were just three examples. The devastation was as widespread as it was severe. The tornado cut a swath nearly a mile wide, the National Weather Service said.

Much of the town looked like a war zone.

"It kind of makes you step back and take a look and just realize how much power Mother Nature has-and there's nothing you can do about it," said Johnson, 67, owner of Krabbenhoft Auto Service in Northwood, whose term as mayor ended in 2010. "We couldn't prevent it in any way. And as you drove through town, you couldn't believe it."

A fresh start

Drive through Northwood today, and you'll see a revitalized community that showed its resilience in the aftermath of the tornado. A new $13 million school on the west side of town opened in 2009, Agvise and Gabriel Construction decided to rebuild, Northwood Equity Elevator repaired and expanded its facility, and a Northwood Business Center that houses a real estate agency, credit union, public library and meeting room occupies a downtown block where buildings were demolished.

Johnson, whose brother, Art, now is mayor, said the local SuperValu store's decision to rebuild and reopen after the tornado damaged the building, which Agvise owned, also was a "big plus" for the town.

By the time the dust settled, the total damage from the tornado was in the $60 million to $62 million range, Johnson estimates.

"That's a lot for a town of 1,000 people," he said.

Bruce Uglem, owner of the Uglem-Ness farm implement dealership and president of the Northwood Economic Development Foundation, said the town has recovered well from the disaster.

He said Johnson and Marcy Douglas, city administrator at the time, along with members of the city council, deserve a lot of credit for their efforts to make Northwood strong again.

"There was a lot of determination to get Northwood back up into the same shape or make it better than it was before," Uglem said. "It was kind of a situation where either we got Northwood back into shape or it was going to just die and become another small town that was slowly disappearing."

Decisions by businesses such as Agvise, Gabriel Construction and the grocery store to rebuild were big confidence boosters, Uglem said.

"That was huge," he said. "Just by seeing those things happen, people wanted to rebuild and make things better."

Different community

Forced into urban renewal by disaster, Northwood is a different community than it was before the tornado, but residents appear to have moved on with their lives.

There'll be no fanfare, no special commemorations, to mark the 10-year milestone. But the memory is still there, Agvise CEO and CFO Bob Wallace said.

"The thing is, you always see this on television," Wallace said. "You're exposed to the world, and it always happens someplace else, and it happens to other people.

"You never think it would happen here."

Wallace and his wife, Carrie, had stopped in Fergus Falls, Minn., for dinner and were on their way home from a wedding in Iowa that Sunday night when they heard about the tornado from their two sons, Mark and Matthew, 18 and 20 at the time, who were home in Northwood.

Wallace said he remembers driving into town about 10 p.m. not knowing the extent of the damage and wondering if history would repeat itself.

Ten years earlier, a fire had destroyed the Agvise facility.

"Basically, I kind of put the pedal to the metal and got home as soon as I could," he said. "All the while I was driving, I just had a rock in my stomach because I didn't know what to expect."

Wallace came home to a town in shambles and remembers the eerie darkness as he drove to the Agvise plant only to find it was gone. Soon after, he learned that Weisz, an Agvise employee who lived in Northwood's mobile home park, had died in the tornado.

"It was gut-wrenching," Wallace said.

Quick decision

Agvise's board of directors held a meeting the next afternoon and announced plans to rebuild. With a full-time staff of 50 to 60 employees and about 100 workers during the peak testing season in the fall, Agvise's decision was a relief to many, Wallace said.

"We made that known right away because you've got 40-plus families that are dependent on this place, not really knowing what's up," Wallace said. "Everybody's livelihood is up in the air so the first thing we did was kind of set that at ease.

"And then, it was just a matter of getting ahold of the insurance company and going forward from there."

A part of the building housing the company's grinding facility survived the tornado, as did about 1,500 soil samples that were onsite, Wallace said. An outbuilding served as a temporary testing lab during the rebuild, and the company also set up a shuttle service to its plant in Benson, Minn.

By July 2008, Agvise was moving into its new 43,000-square-foot building on the east side of Northwood and back to 100 percent about 15 months after the tornado, Wallace said.

"Our crew is very resilient," he said. "They were able to dig in, and everybody put on three-four-five different hats-whatever it took-and we dug in and got things going."

Johnson, the former mayor, said hail two weeks earlier had damaged 27 vehicles on his car lot, near the Agvise plant, but that was nothing compared with the tornado's wrath, which destroyed at least 15 vehicles.

Johnson got out of the new car business after the tornado but keeps a few used vehicles on the lot on the east side of Northwood, along with the Krabbenhoft Auto Service parts store and service shop downtown.

"You should have seen some of those cars," Johnson said. "You couldn't really tell what make or model they were on some of them. It almost looked like they bounced like a basketball to crumple like that."

Recovery efforts were underway almost immediately, but there were bumps along the way, Johnson said. Frustrated home and business owners sometimes had to wait for contractors or settlements to begin repairs. There were battles with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over funding, and FEMA officials who said the community was moving too fast to remove debris before it could be tested for lead and asbestos.

Johnson said he made nearly a dozen trips to Washington, D.C., to meet with agency officials. At times, he admits, FEMA was almost like a four-letter word.

"They said 'Hey, you guys have to stop,' " hauling away debris, Johnson said. "And I said, 'I'm sorry, we've got the people here, we've got the help, we've got the equipment, we're not stopping.' "

They worked out a compromise, and FEMA agreed to drill holes for testing the soil after debris was removed, Johnson said.

"I can't remember how many semi loads we hauled out," he said.

Shared experience

Tornado stories such as those of Johnson and Wallace are just a small part of a shared experience in Northwood history and the community's subsequent recovery from disaster.

It's a story of volunteers who came to help, politicians such as then-Gov. John Hoeven and North Dakota's congressional delegation at the time-Sens. Kent Conrad and Byron Dorgan and Rep. Earl Pomeroy-who visited Northwood on several occasions to offer support and help with navigating the red tape that's part of any recovery.

And, of course, the help from state and federal agencies and neighboring communities such as Hatton, which took in Northwood students until the new school was completed.

It's a story of resilience. And determination-to recover, rebuild and get on with life.

"You looked at some of the damage and often wondered, how is it going to be repaired? But you knew it was going to get repaired," Johnson said. "Each person kind of took it upon themselves to help their neighbor, I guess. Nobody seemed to give up.

"I think the volunteers had a lot to do with it," he added. "I can't stress that enough."

Johnson said he thinks Northwood today is better than it was before the tornado, but the community will never be the same.

"There were a lot of beautiful trees in Northwood, and they're gone," Johnson said. "Some of our streets were like hallways. You'd drive down and all you'd see is kind of a tunnel of trees, and I'll never live long enough to see that again."