By Jamie Taylor
Special to the Foto News
When an EF3 tornado slammed through Lincoln County late in the afternoon of April 10, 2011, it left a trail of destruction and devastation many here had never experienced before. In addition to damaging the Smith Center and the MARC, the twister tore through the industrial park, severely damaging several businesses, then hit the Merrill Municipal Airport before rampaging through the Town of Merrill. In all, over 65 homes were damaged or destroyed along with numerous businesses.
What happened after that was an unending stream of volunteers swarming to help businesses and homeowners clean up debris, offer meals, places to stay and just offer emotional support.
The spirit and effort of those who came to help those who were touched by the tornado were saluted last Thursday at a celebration ceremony at the Merrill High School auditorium.
The one-hour ceremony was at times emotional as four homeowners and a businessman spoke of how the outpouring of support that lasted through the summer helped them through their ordeals.
Mike Handlin said he was surprised when he got to what was left of his house that night that there were volunteers already there to help him. He said that he had over 40 volunteers helping him the next day and fielded calls from across the country over the next week.
“I had the whole community offering to help,” Handlin said. “It was amazing.”
Jeff Block, who not only lost his house and storage sheds, but also his used car business, said when he crawled out of his basement to survey the destruction, he was devastated.
“It was like someone pulled something out of my heart,” Block said. “I looked back and I had nothing. I’m a car dealer and I didn’t even have a car.”
He said he was amazed at how people would put in an entire day working their regular jobs and then work helping clear debris with him.
“I was born and raised in Merrill, and I know a lot of people badmouth Merrill by calling it ‘sterile Merrill,'” Block said. “Sterile Merrill? You can just kiss my a–! It’s like this whole town put all its arms around all of us (affected by the tornado).”
Rose Skic-Wilson was hit by a double blow, losing her house to the storm and then her job a few days later. She said it was the outpouring of love and support that kept her going. She found a new job and hopes to move into her rebuilt home soon.
“The spirit of cooperation and willingness to work together has made this community stronger,” Skic-Wilson said.
“Our community is blessed to have so many caring people,” she added.
Jeremy Lee said even though his home was destroyed, his uncle put it in perspective for him.
“He said that this is still home,” Lee said. “They can take my house, but they can’t take my home.”
He said that even though people came from all over the Midwest to help with the clean up, it was the unending help from people in the Merrill area that convinced him how true his uncle’s words were.
“A community takes care of its people,” Lee said. “I’m just in awe of the number of people who just showed up ready to help. It was fall and people were still coming.”
Matt Beilke of Northern Wire was also impressed with the volunteer response following the tornado, which he said hit as the company was getting ready for their busiest time of the year. With the help of its customers and a disaster recovery plan, and a lot of hard work, the company was able to resume production rather quickly even as the plant was being rebuilt.
“This really tested our character,” Beilke said.
He said he learned that having important documents and personal things backed up offsite was just as important in a personal setting as well as for a business.
Mark Wallace and Ron Kautz, who coordinated the volunteer efforts during the recovery spoke of how overwhelmed they were by the outpouring of support from those who came.
“I told the volunteers that every time you pick up a piece of debris, you’re really picking up a piece of their pain,” said Wallace, who coordinated the efforts alone in the beginning of the recovery. “I can tell you first hand, a person can only carry so much pain.”
Kautz said he still gets emotional at the memories of all the people who volunteered to help total strangers affected by the destruction.
The two ran the volunteer efforts through St. John Lutheran Church, which has assembled a trailer with tools and equipment that can be taken to the site of other disasters to help with clean up efforts. They are also working on getting as many area volunteers as possible trained for disaster response so they will be better prepared in the future.
“Hopefully it will never be needed here again,” Kautz said.
The two also have 1,200 cedar and pine seedlings that are available for those affected who are now at the replanting stage of recovering from the storm.