Northwood residents have lessons to share after devastating 2007 tornado
When an EF-4 tornado made its way through the city of Northwood in 2007, the residents were about as prepared as any unsuspecting community could be. Many people participated in the town disaster drill at the beginning of the summer, but as the damaging wind and hail howled on Aug. 26, Mother Nature took the townspeople by surprise.
Richard Johnson, mayor of Northwood during the disaster and owner of Krabbenhoft Auto Supply & Service, was moving vehicles off the lot of his dealership with his wife, Renee, as the storm rolled in.
“They were issuing storm warnings and I was concerned about getting the vehicles moved,” he says. “We had hail damage a couple weeks beforehand from a storm, so I wanted to get the cars into the inside storage lot before more hail hit. I wasn’t thinking ‘tornado’ so much as I was thinking ‘I don’t want to get hail again.’”
As the storm gained strength, Johnson and his wife were bringing the cars into town and watched closely as the skies became shades darker over their community. Renee’s instincts kicked in and the couple gave up trying to save the remaining vehicles on the lot.
Not a moment too soon, the couple had entered their home for safety when the tornado arrived over the once peaceful town.
“At that point, we heard a ‘whoosh’ and the house was shaking,” Johnson says. “We couldn’t see the tornado — it was too dark, of course.”
Wade Bilden, owner of Bilden Drug, also narrowly escaped the tornado. He and his daughter were watching the storm roll in from the north as they sat on the front porch of their newly built home when his wife demanded they get down to the basement immediately.
“Right as she said it, the whistle went off and the electricity went out,” Bilden says. “And as we shut the door to the basement, glass came under the door, so we got in just in time. She was right again.”
When the brutal storm had passed, Johnson and his wife felt it was safe to leave their home to assess their town. He says he couldn’t have been prepared for what he saw.
“We didn’t realize what happened until we got into the car and drove up the street,” he says. “It looked terrible — wires lying down, trees — I don’t know how to explain it.”
‘What do we do next?’
Johnson worked through the night with city personnel, families, home and business owners, to begin the cleanup process and search for possible fatalities or injuries in the area. The city was divided into sections and search groups were given designated areas to comb through for victims.
The tornado had claimed one life and had completely decimated much of the town, cutting off electricity and blocking streets with debris.
“It took a good couple hours for people to absorb what had happened,” Johnson says. “They wondered ‘What do we do next?’”
Farmers and volunteers from surrounding communities who had seen and heard of the devastation in Northwood flocked to the area to lend a hand. They moved trees, helped in the search for survivors and brought food and other necessities for the astonished townspeople.
Johnson says the clean-up process went quickly as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross arrived almost immediately to discuss proper disposal and provide needed assistance.
Bilden agrees the helping hands from organizations and volunteers played an immense role in the recovery process. “Name one of the groups and they were all here,” he says. “Nobody ever went hungry. It was almost like you had so much help, you didn’t have enough to do. It was tremendous.”
Attempts to save the remaining cars on Johnson’s lot were interrupted by the need to find shelter before the tornado hit. Unfortunately, he lost all 17 of the vehicles, which were found as far as half a mile away. His home was “virtually untouched” he says, incurring around $20,000 in damage.
“I was a lot better off than most,” he adds.
Bilden and his family were not so lucky. Having just built their home in 2005, the two-year-old structure was completely totaled and had to be rebuilt.
“It was just stuff,” he says. “We have nothing to complain about — our kids were home.”
But Bilden Drug fared quite well with the help of surrounding buildings and sturdy materials.
“Businesswise, we were very blessed,” Bilden says. We were tucked in between two other buildings. We had a rubber roof and only had two holes.”
Bilden received help from Dennis Johnson of Wall Drug in Grand Forks by bringing in a generator and a technician to connect the system, as well as supplying trained assistance to provide necessary service to the community. Bilden’s store was only closed for three days after the storm.
As the rest of the town awaited power, Johnson says many citizens sought refuge with family and friends in surrounding areas since the lack of electricity and water inhibited them from continuing their normal lives at home.
“The ones that didn’t have damage to their house, they were without power for a long time,” Johnson says. “Some of them stayed. Some were stubborn enough to say they aren’t going anywhere, no matter what.”
He says the town was up and running within two or three days when power was restored. Neighboring towns and power companies set up poles and ran electrical wire to get things moving again and prepare for the rebuilding process.
“Besides their house being gone, people knew they wanted to rebuild and stay,” Johnson says. “Normal? I don’t know if it will ever be normal again.”
Johnson credits the early summer warning detection system mock drill, where response teams used roadblocks and “fallen” trees to test emergency response skills to better prepare the citizens.
“Guys at the time said ‘Geez what do we gotta do this for? It’s never going to happen here,’ and (they) kinda made fun of it.”
Still, he says people were not prepared for the reality of a tornado hitting their quiet town on the Plains. “The best they could do was head for a basement and inside wall,” he says. “Very few if any had a plan. It just happened and you kinda go with the flow at the time.”
Bilden agrees the basement and emergency response system were responsible for his safe escape from the storm. He also credits his wife’s intuition and awareness of the storm’s direction.
Johnson says insurance is always a must, because the impossible is possible. “People are always looking for the cheapest premium,” he says. “But you get what you pay for. Read the fine lines.”
He says it’s important to have a plan for the actual disaster, even if there is doubt the storm will not hit home. He also recommends having a common meeting place planned with family and friends so everyone knows where to meet and be counted.
“You’re never fully prepared, unless you’ve been through it, I don’t think you’d know what to do.”
Bilden recommends knowing the whereabouts of family and friends, especially when a storm is brewing. “Know where your family is, that’s above and beyond anything,” he says. “Don’t be at a friend’s house, be home. That’s all that really matters.”
Both survivors agree it is most important to know about the safest place in a building — innermost hallway or basement.
Nearly seven years later, the families who survived the Northwood tornado of 2007 hear the emergency sirens and know how to react, though some might believe another disaster of that measure won’t hit home again. Bilden says it’s a wake-up call to get moving.
“All of a sudden if you hear a whistle, you realize it’s not somewhere else, it can be here,” he says. “You just say ‘Wait a minute — this can happen.’”