By: Jane Turpin Moore

WORTHINGTON — More than 50 citizens and local government officials met Saturday morning at the Worthington Fire Hall to share stories of their struggles and strides in dealing with the aftermath of last week’s devastating ice storm and snowstorm.

Their audience was a rapt contingent of Minnesota’s most powerful politicians, who sought to reassure this hard-hit swath of southern Minnesota cities that they bore witness to the damage and planned to help.

Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and Minnesota Homeland Security Director Kris Eide — along with area state legislators Rod Hamilton, Joe Schomaker and Bill Weber — listened intently to detailed testimonials during the roughly 45-minute session before commenting themselves.

“Call me if things aren’t going quickly enough,” exhorted Dayton as he demonstrated his sincere desire to be part of the solution by reciting aloud his home phone number. “We want to respond in a timely way.

“When disaster strikes, we’re all Minnesotans, not Republicans or Democrats, and we will do what we need to do to make you whole again.”

Dayton thanked the public works employees and police force for their fine efforts over the preceding difficult days, noting that “disasters amazingly bring out the best in Minnesotans.”

Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh introduced the distinguished visitors and outlined the meeting’s purpose, saying, “This is not how we like to have our elected officials come to our community — in a disaster situation — but you can’t believe it until you see it.”

Craig Clark, Worthington’s city manager, said it had been “raining branches and ice” in the area, and he was concerned about the economic impact on the community.

“I’m just hazarding a guess, and these are rough numbers, but we estimate we’ll be well over $1 million for debris and branch removal alone.

“That’s daunting for a community our size. Thank God for our backup diesel generators that protected the life and safety of our residents, but you also can’t underestimate the social impact — we take our trees for granted — and it will also be a struggle for us as a community to recover financially.”

Worthington Public Utilities General Manager Scott Hain thanked the officials for their visit, mentioning that the 14 megawatts of local power generation constructed here more than 10 years ago had been invaluable in recent days, although Worthington was “isolated from the outside world from a transmission perspective.”

“Our largest industries had to shut down and suspend operation,” Hain said. “As of 10 a.m. today [Saturday], we’ve spent over $260,000 on diesel fuel, and our workers have logged more overtime hours than we can count.

“Our four main industries tell us that with the work loss on Wednesday, Thursday and more than a half day on Friday, they’ve suffered at least $1.4 million in direct loss, and that impact will be felt going forward, too, with employees not getting paychecks for those days.”

Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening said the storm had made a “huge impact on every one of the 10 communities in Nobles County, but our county has really stepped up to the plate and seen neighbors helping neighbors.”

Wilkening thanked Eide for sending Emergency Management staff from Lincoln and Brown Counties to Nobles County to assist with the variety of needs here.

That staff included Desiree Hohenstein, the assistant Emergency Management Director from Brown County who had been in the area since late Thursday.

“Our primary focus has been on preliminary damage assessment, creating a debris plan, and I’ve been working specifically with Ellsworth and Round Lake,” Hohenstein said.

Hohenstein’s thoughts when driving into the area were this: “It looked like a tornado zone, but without damage to the houses. We’re calling it ‘snow-nado.’”

Joyce Jacobs, who has been on the job since only last July 9 as Nobles County’s Emergency Management Director, called Hohenstein, along with Minnesota Homeland Security Regional Program Coordinator Amy Card and the rest of their colleagues, a tremendous help.

“I can’t imagine getting through this without them,” Jacobs said. “They have been an emergency response dream team.”

City of Worthington Forester Scott Rosenberg estimated that at least 20 percent of the city’s 5,000 boulevard trees were destroyed or would have to be removed. Fortunately, most of the city’s park buildings were spared major damage, Rosenberg reported, although some picnic tables and playground equipment had suffered ill effects.

Rick Burud, manager of Nobles Cooperative Electric (NCE), Worthington, and Federated Electric, Jackson, estimated NCE’s costs so far from the storm to be between $5 and $7 million, with Jackson County costs slightly lower — $3-5 million.

“We have 100 linemen on the ground in Nobles County right now, from all over,” Burud reported. “And we hope to bring in another 100. We have every hotel room full.

“We’re pretty resilient, but there are a tremendous amount of dangerous areas out there. If a wire is down, assume it’s hot.”

Representatives from a few of Nobles County’s smaller communities — Tasha Domeyer of Ellsworth, Bruce Heitkamp of Adrian, Court Baumgard of Round Lake and Chad Cummings of Brewster — also delivered news from their localities, emphasizing the cooperation of volunteers, fire fighters, neighbors and employees.

“It’s been a great team effort,” said Baumgard, who spent 68 hours without power at his own rural residence.

“I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through,” sympathized Klobuchar. “We — legislators, government, local officials — work as a team to make sure you can come back again. We have to assess the damage so we’re able to advocate for you on a federal level.

“I know how beautiful Worthington is, and we want to see it that way again.”

Walz similarly expressed sadness at the disaster but praised the community response to date.

“The devastation is awful, but the sense of pride that comes with Worthington, your competency and community spirit and willingness to move forward, are very evident,” agreed Walz.

Franken thanked all who had been doing the work to restore power and jumpstart the overwhelming cleanup efforts, while taking a humanitarian view of the situation.

“We’re lucky no one was hurt or killed,” Franken said. “You can replace stuff that is lost, even trees, but you can’t replace people.

The political delegation took a short driving tour of Worthington en route to the fire hall, gaining a first-hand, visual perspective on the damage before hearing reports and greeting constituents. Their day continued with stops in Luverne and Hills.

“Now a different kind of work starts,” Eide said. “There is a numerical impact, for sure, but you will have to tell your story, let us know the rolling impact on homes and businesses.”

As the forum wound down, an optimistic tone filled the air despite the heavy workload still ahead.

“Rejuvenation can be good,” reminded Walz.

Added Wilkening, “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”