June 3, 2014

Helping put lives back together after the storm

By Kate Ruggles
Farmer Staff Writer

On the evening of Monday, May 26, a tornado touched down six miles south of Watford City, completely destroying Raley RV Park and displacing 33 individuals. There were nine injured by the storm and a 15-year-old girl was seriously injured and air-lifted to Minot.
According to her aunt and uncle, Eric and Desiree Spencer, she was actually an out-of-town guest of theirs and was planning on spending the next three weeks with them.
“She has always been a little mom,” states Desiree. “This was her summer to just be a kid.”
Desiree states that just before the storm began, she and Eric had just gotten back from picking their niece up in Minot.
“It was just after 7 p.m. when we got home,” states Desiree. “We were getting her settled and Eric started working on a portable window unit that he had been trying to install.”
Desiree states that Eric noticed the sky had turned an eerie green and gray color and their niece mentioned the possibility of there being a tornado in jest.
“Just then a tornado warning came across the TV and Eric told us to get down under the coffee table,” states Desiree.
She states that the trailer started shaking violently. She got on top of her niece to protect her, but the tornado had ripped Desiree off of her niece and she lost her.
In the moments that followed, Desiree states that the trailer flipped two or three times and there was gravel flying around in the air, hitting them in the face and filling their mouths.
“We couldn’t talk because our mouths were so full of debris,” states Desiree.
Desiree and Eric were encircled by flying objects, one of which Desiree believes was a propane tank. And the storm was so forceful that it pulled their clothes off their bodies.
“We were being dragged around on our bare backs by the storm,” states Desiree. “I have never seen anything like it in my life.”
While Desiree and Eric were fighting with flying objects and swirling gravel, they were also struggling to find their niece.
“When we finally saw her, she was just limp and her face was bloody,” states Desiree. “I thought she was gone.”
Just as she was starting to regain consciousness, Desiree states that Eric saw another funnel cloud starting to form. He picked up his niece and he and Desiree ran toward a pump house for a nearby well.
“It is usually locked, but that night it was open,” states Eric. “It was the most secure thing we could find, so we hurried to get inside.”
While others from the park were seeking protection in the same pump house, Desiree states that Eric went out to look for more people while she stayed with her niece.
“We all just stayed there until help arrived,” states Desiree.
In the meantime, people searched for water, to clear the gravel out of their mouths, and one man with EMT training helped their niece who was severely injured.
The man, according to Desiree, put pressure on her head and stayed with her all the way to the hospital.
“He was a lifesaver,” states Desiree.

Picking up the pieces

Both Desiree and Eric state that going through the tornado was terrifying. A week ago they thought they were both going to die, but now the tornado that took away their home and most of their possessions has given them perspective. Eric and Desiree state that they are thankful for so many things, but most of all the fact that they and their niece are alive.
“We do not have a lot right now,” states Desiree. “We just spent our savings on some land back in Arkansas and we did not insure our trailer, because we were told it was too old to insure. We lost everything in the storm and it will set us back. But we are all alive and that is a miracle.”
The day after the storm, Desiree and Eric returned to the place where their home used to stand. They found their trailer and most of their possessions scattered beyond recovery. They lost a sleep apnea machine, all their medicines, most of their credit and bank cards and so much more. But what they could salvage, they were grateful for.
“The clothes we found were filthy, but we took them to the laundry and got them cleaned,” states Desiree. “It cost us $800, but we had been wearing hospital gowns for a day and a half, so it was nice to have our own clothes on again.”
Desiree states that when she called her drug store, Larsen Service Drug, to ask if they would replace the medicine she lost in the storm, not only did they say, “yes,” without hesitation, but they took up a collection for her and her husband as well.
“They told us they would replace our medicine for us free of charge. But then they gave us money on top of that,” states Desiree. “Where in the world does that happen?”
And it only goes on from there - First International Bank & Trust worked with them to replace the cards they lost and the Great American Lodge has given them a place to stay free of charge. It does not stop with the Spencers, either.
Tessa Moberg, of Wiggles and Giggles Daycare, states that one of her employees was displaced by the tornado. Her employee states that she is shaken up, but so thankful to the community for their generosity.
“The Roosevelt Inn put her up for a week for free and when she got into her room, there were bags of items for both her and her two-year-old son,” states Moberg.
Moberg states that Prairie Company has donated gift cards and housing, and others have donated clothes.
As for Desiree and Eric’s niece, she was diagnosed with a broken clavicle, a shattered eye socket and some bleeding on the brain. According to Desiree, the bleeding on her brain seems to be getting better and their niece will have to have reconstructive surgery for her shattered eye socket. All in all, however, she is doing well and will head home when she is released from the hospital.
Desiree and Eric, however, do not plan on leaving anytime soon.
“This little town is so precious,” states Desiree. “We are transplants. Our jobs are here. We are not from here, yet people have cared about us anyway. This place is totally different than any other place in the world, and though it did not feel like home at first, this has become our home.”
Karolin Rockvoy, with McKenzie County Emergency Management, states that most of the families have been able to find a new, permanent housing solution. Some have moved back home and others have left to purchase a new trailer to bring it back and continue where they left off. As of right now, however, there are still four families that are displaced and looking for permanent housing.
Anyone who wishes to help can donate to the Tornado Relief Fund at First International Bank & Trust.

What are the next steps as far as McKenzie County is concerned?

According to Rockvoy, the night of the tornado brought responses from so many businesses and agencies in the community. Walmart donated two pallets of water and Cash Wise donated food. People donated housing, clothing and money, and the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Bakken Oil Rush Ministries and area churches responded to make sure that people’s needs were taken care of.
“The Red Cross and the Bakken Oil Rush Ministries set up shop on Thursday, May 28, to help the tornado victims get any items they were in need of,” states Rockvoy. “And that night the Bakken Oil Rush Ministries sponsored a free Spaghetti Feed that fed roughly 173 people.”
But so much more is needed, states Rockvoy, both with regard to the individuals affected by the storm and McKenzie County as a whole as well.
“None of the man camps in McKenzie County have emergency shelters,” states Rockvoy. “There is no place for those people to go in an emergency situation.”
Rockvoy and Jerry Samuelson, also with McKenzie County Emergency Management, state that individuals always need to be prepared for emergency situations by having an emergency plan in place.
But Samuelson goes a step further to state that the people who are living in McKenzie County in campers need to make sure their campers and trailers are secured with metal tie-downs and anchors.
“This tornado was small, and even though it caused a lot of damage, the people of this community are actually very lucky,” states Rockvoy. “If the tornado had been the size of the tornado that ripped through Fargo in the ’50s, the damage would have been far worse.”
According to Rockvoy, the tornado that hit Raley RV Park on Memorial Day was classified as an EF2 with 120 mph winds. The tornado that struck Fargo in 1957 was classified as an F5, the most deadly level on the classification chart.
According to Samuelson, there have only been 13 tornado touchdowns in the whole state of North Dakota since the ’50s. However, that does not mean that people should not be prepared.
Rockvoy believes that the McKenzie County Commissioners need to consider putting a six-month moratorium on all developments in the county, in order to give the developments that are currently here a chance to catch up and be brought up to code.
“The housing developments in the county occurred very rapidly because companies needed places to house their workers, and many of them were built before zoning laws and building codes were in place in McKenzie County,” states Rockvoy. “The county’s planning and zoning department was only established a year ago, and the zoning laws and building codes were only just recently finalized. If we don’t stop right now and catch up, we will be hurting ourselves in the long run.”
Rockvoy understands that it could hurt developers to cease their developments, but her biggest concern is the safety of the people living in McKenzie County.
“We have been put in a position of having to react to an emergency, rather than respond,” states Rockvoy. “It is not fair to the people that live in the county and it is not fair to the people who have lived here all their lives.”