Turbulent emotions arrived in the wake of last year's tornado, but area businesses directly in its path have rebuilt and the owners count their blessings.
Tornadoes often carve a twist of irony into their destruction and the June 13, 2001, tornado that struck southeast of Brainerd was no exception.
A landscaping business and nursery along with a non-profit organization dedicated to building houses both fell in the tornado's path, suffering massive damage. A year later, both rebuilt from the ruins of their neighboring properties on Crow Wing County Road 45.
Wes and Carol Urdahl were home with their daughter, Sarah, the night the tornado struck. They live in a home next to their 17-year-old business -- Eagle Landscaping Greenhouse and Nursery. Just before the tornado hit, they saw the wind's power as a birch tree was blown sideways so that it paralleled the ground. That was 8:20 p.m.
The Urdahls made it to the basement by seconds. And their move to safety came only after a summer camp friend in Arkansas called Sarah warning her about the storm in the area. The friend had never called before. Sarah, now 18 and a college student, urged her parents to go downstairs. They heard the tornado's roar. The ground shook. The walls quaked. Seconds later there were sounds of their home of 27 years being torn apart.
"I looked up the stairway and the roof was gone," Wes Urdahl said. "... They told us when we moved here tornadoes didn't hit Brainerd."
They were able to get out of the ruined home and drive to their daughter Candi's home in Brainerd in the one vehicle that was still useable. They scooped broken glass from the seats. Downed power lines forced them to make part of the trip in the ditch. Darkness cloaked much of the destruction unveiled the next day by the morning's light.
They came home to mangled remains of greenhouses and a tangled row of 30-foot blue spruce they planted together in 1975. Five rows of trees were scattered behind the home. A five-foot two-man crosscut saw became a nighttime projectile landing in the opposite side of the home as its former garage perch. What the tornado did not dislodge, the storm soaked.
Sarah (left), Wes and Carol Urdahl not only had to cope with a devastated greenhouse business after the storm, they also lost their home. But they are pleased with the new home constructed on the site and now are still adjusting to the lost trees. (Dispatch Photo by Renee Richardson)
The wind plucked cement anchors, buried 30 inches in the ground, above the earth. Hundreds of hanging baskets had been in the greenhouses, about two were left intact. The others littered the ground in smashed pots. Master gardeners and Minnesota Extension Service co-workers of Wes Urdahl came to help, salvaging plants from the ruined greenhouses. Many resilient plants, which looked as if they had been sandblasted, recovered. Plant
labels were found as far away as Highway 25, a few miles away.
"If it wouldn't have been for help those first two days we would have lost all our plants," Wes Urdahl said.
Seven greenhouses were destroyed or heavily damaged. The Urdahls found they were underinsured on outbuildings, which to their surprise included the garage. That did not leave enough coverage to rebuild the seven greenhouses they had. They were able to restore three. At an age closer to retirement than not, Carol Urdahl said they did not want to go into too much debt to rebuild. They plan to rebuild as they can afford it.
"We were not insured enough," Wes Urdahl said. "Who would think you'd lose everything all at once."
Pictures Sarah took the day after the storm show pink Fiberglas strewn about the yard, debris in the few standing trees and a house with its main floor exposed to the sky. The power outage compounded recovery. Wes Urdahl began to water surviving plants with a portable generator.
But through all the mess and rebuilding, the business was only closed eight days. Trying to track all their belongings for reimbursement was more than a headache without a list of items, serial numbers and purchase prices. They learned volunteers need to write down every item they throw away as unsalvageable. The Urdahls started rebuilding in late August and closed for a few days in September.
"If you must have a disaster, you should live in Brainerd because the people came out," Carol Urdahl said. "... We couldn't have rebuilt if it weren't for our customers. They'd buy and say keep the change. ... We couldn't have done it without all the help we got."
A living room couch, surrounded by furniture, was left exposed in the Urdahl home after the roof was removed by the tornado that swept through an area southeast of Brainerd June 13, 2001. (Dispatch File Photo by Steve Kohls)
A former vo-tech student with a small nursery gave the Urdahls $1,000. Landsburg Landscape Nursery also helped them get back on their feet. Help came on all fronts. Two ladies took the Urdahls' wet clothes home, washing and drying them.
Most difficult are the lost photos, particularly photos of their son, John, who drowned after attempting to save another girl and his sister, Sarah, who went to her aid during a youth canoe trip in 1999. By chance many photos of John were saved when Sarah took down a collage wall just days before.
"So many details like that," Carol Urdahl said. "They are mercy in the loss."
"It's a lot harder to lose a son than go through a tornado," Wes Urdahl said.
Sarah said coming back home from college was a new shock as she readjusted to the changed landscape and the tree loss. The Urdahls know it will take years to replace the trees. But Sarah retains a fondness for storms.
"I like it," Sarah said of the new home. "I think it was a blessing in disguise."
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