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North Dakota Guard responds to Northwood tornado

By Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp | National Guard Bureau | Sept. 7, 2007

NORTHWOOD, N.D. - The school mascot here is "Thunder," and a tornado brought a thunder like no other, ripping through this northeast North Dakota town of about 900 people on the night of Sunday, Aug. 26.

The tornado that wreaked havoc with the trees, buildings and homes in the close-knit rural community was no ordinary summer twister. It was an F4 on the Fujita Scale for rating tornado intensity. The killer tornado, eight-tenths of a mile wide and cutting a path five miles long, was blamed for killing one man and sending 19 more people to local hospitals.

Nearly 100 National Guard turned out to support the recovery mission.

"I still can't find my garage, and it's been four days. Where does a snow blower go?" asked Tech. Sgt. Chad Peterson from the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Civil Engineer Squadron, one of the residents who weathered the storm better than his home, which Peterson said is considered a total loss by his insurance adjustor.

As a civilian, Peterson works with information technology and emergency management for the Northwood Deaconess Health Center, the largest employer in Northwood. The health center is also the place where he and his family rode out the tornado, assisting patients at the time. 

His military training in emergency management kicked in when the tornado hit as he directed people into hallways and had them get down and cover their heads. 

Exterior doors blew open and ceiling tiles lifted up and came crashing down around them along with glass from the windows.

The damage in the town was among the worst seen in the state's history and is estimated to be between 38 to 59 million dollars.  Four hundred thirty-one of Northwood's 460 homes were destroyed, damaged or affected by the tornado.

"I've never seen destruction like this before," said Capt. Penny A. Ripperger, the 119th Wing's public affairs officer. "You see pictures, but to walk through a town where literally every house seems to be touched by this disastrous storm is unbelievable."

Within 15 hours after the tornado hit, 40 North Dakota Army National Guard members were driving heavy equipment into town to begin clearing streets of debris and helping residents begin the process of getting back into their homes.  

"This is what we do," said Lt. Col. Lee Nordin, operations officer for the 141st Combat Support Battalion, who was one of the first to respond. "We're here to support the governor and the emergency management people in their efforts in the event of emergencies and natural disasters."

More North Dakota Army and Air National Guard personnel reported for duty during the next few days and seamlessly fit into the recovery efforts. 

"Military personnel were working around the clock in every aspect of the recovery effort. Soldiers and Airmen were busy operating chainsaws and heavy equipment to remove debris and clear trees and branches," Ripperger said. "They were providing security in and out of the city, and they were working closely with city officials and volunteer agencies."

By 2 p.m. Tuesday, only 24 hours after they began arriving, National Guard members had helped remove approximately 700 dump-truck loads of debris to a landfill five miles west of Northwood. By the time they left the town on Friday, Aug. 31, the National Guard members working with contractors and volunteers had removed over 2,000 truck loads.

Removing the debris made it possible for electrical crews to work on restoring power which had been out since the tornado hit Sunday night.

"The Soldiers and Airmen of the North Dakota National Guard are doing an outstanding job assisting the residents of Northwood in their recovery efforts," said Gov. John Hoeven. "The mission in Northwood highlights the dual role of our citizen soldiers in defending our nation and assisting our state in a disaster."

"Our Guardsmen continue to serve their country around the globe and here at home. Nearly 100 service members volunteered to help their neighbors with the recovery effort in the Northwood community," said Maj. Gen. David Sprynczynatyk, the North Dakota Guard's adjutant general. "This is just one of the many contributions our Guardsmen continue to make."

Sprynczynatyk was quick to add that he was pleased with the support provided by the employers of the Guardmembers.

"I would like to thank the employers for their commitment and sacrifice in giving our Soldiers and Airmen time to serve. It is critical that our Guardmembers are able to deploy in an effective and timely manner to aid our communities in times of need as demonstrated here in Northwood."

The National Guard has done a phenomenal job  assisting the locals with manpower, equipment and security. I can't say enough good things about them," said Tom Bush, a Federal Emergency Management Agency Region 8 team member working in the disaster command post. "The volunteerism here is off the chart. When you guys come together, it is something to behold."