It has been four years now since an EF3 tornado ripped through the Merrill area on Sunday, April 10, 2011.
Reaching Merrill at about 6:20 p.m., the twister destroyed at least 65 homes, several business and thousands of trees. The damage estimate topped $12 million. Hardest hit were the industrial park and the neighborhoods along Airport Road and Hillside Drive.
The front page of that week’s Foto News read simply, “Devastated!” – which most certainly wasn’t an exaggeration. Foto News photographers captured literally thousands of images over the next days and weeks as the cleanup and rebuilding process dominated the news in Merrill.
The photos from that night and the next day bear evidence of the spectacular power of nature’s fury. The scene was truly surreal.
This was not just a story of devastation, however, as the narrative quickly became about a community pulling together. Even during the chaos immediately following the tornado, as emergency services were stretched to their limits, citizens pitched in to help clear the roads and assist their neighbors. The symphony of chainsaws and drumming of generators started almost as soon as the storm had passed and reached a crescendo the following morning at first light and went on for days as scores of volunteers poured into the areas hardest hit by the tornado.
That outpouring of support continued for weeks as volunteers clocked over 5,000 man hours in April alone – and those were just the volunteers who signed up through an organized cleanup project. The Red Cross and Salvation Army were on scene immediately to provide assistance to victims and stayed active in the community to support the cleanup efforts.
A Tornado Relief Fund was set up by the Merrill Area Chamber of Commerce on April 11 and reached its initial goal of $150,000 within a month. Donations to the Merrill Area United Way’s Storm Match fund topped $100,000 by May 12.
Four years later, homes and businesses have been rebuilt. However, it will be a long time before the landscape in some areas returns to its pre-twister state; you can’t rebuild a forest in a matter of a few years. Considering the scope of the destruction, it was amazing that only three injuries were reported and not one person was killed in the storm. For that we should be forever grateful.
As Merrill looks back on the events of four years ago, we are reminded that tornado season has begun again in the Midwest. At least 14 tornadoes were reported across the region Thursday, causing widespread damage and claiming two lives in Illinois. News reports from the small towns hit Thursday are remarkably similar to those coming from Merrill four years ago – communities pulling together to pick up the pieces, rebuild and recover.