Last year, July 12th, the storms that ravaged Nisswa, and the Gull Lake area, spared my home from damage, but they made my mind flash back to 1965—the first year I was on the Fire Department—and the deadly tornados that tore through Fridley and Spring Lake Park. It was May 6th of 1965 and last year was the fiftieth anniversary of those storms. I was 24 years old, and not only just a rookie on the department, but an impressionable one at that.
There is s saying, “The calm before the storm.” It’s a calm that is filled with fear and trepidation, of not knowing what’s coming. But there is a “calm after the storm too” and it’s one filled with shock and disbelief, of what just took place. Often there is a feeling of hopelessness, confusion and not knowing, what to do next, except to be thankful you survived. When you are called to help and you look out over an entire neighborhood, absolutely flattened by the winds, and see people walking aimlessly on the debris-filled streets because they don’t know where to go, or what to do next, it’s heart wrenching. Your training tells you one thing, your heart tells you another. Even though you came to help, you’re not sure just what to do. You see an old lady sitting on her cement steps with just a basement hole behind her, where her house once stood. Her eyes fixed and wide open and her face expressionless, deep in shock, holding all she has left. Her cat. I wanted to go to her but you can’t because you’re too busy. You hear the gas lines still hissing, and somewhere in the rubble, a phone is ringing. You hear a scream and uncontrollable sobbing, and you know they found another victim. Before the night was over a second tornado would come through—an hour after the first one. There were 5 or 6 tornados in all, with thirteen fatalities and hundreds who were injured.
I went home late that night, not knowing what I would find—there were no cell phones in those days. My brand new home, on the other side of the river, was only on the outskirts of the storm but it had no siding left on it. It had been stripped by the wind, and there were very few shingles left on the roof. The hail had wrecked my car. My wife was sitting in the kitchen with the kids in the dark, scared and with tears in her eyes. One of the things about being called out in storms is, you often have to abandon your own family. I told her, “Dry those tears, everything will be fixed. I wish,” I said, “I could accurately convey to you what I saw and heard this night. We are the lucky ones, honey, believe me.” Over the next thirty years on the Department there would be many more storms and disasters, but nothing like that night. After that, when we would get called to help at storms, my thoughts would always go back to that May 6th night in Fridley.
We have come a long way since then. Sunday night the 12th, I tracked the storms on my phone. The media and the sirens gave us plenty of warning, and I knew we weren’t directly in its path. I prayed that those who were would be safe. It turned out that no one was hurt, and that is what counts. The people of Fridley, back then, were a resilient people. They rebuilt their homes, patched up their wounded, and sadly, buried their dead. A year later you would never know what happened to them that night. Not unless you were in the storm or were called to help.