Alumni from the Wadena-Deer Creek High School spent two years planning a big reunion of anyone who has ever attended the school. But after a tornado struck the town last night, it has become a different sort of reunion.
Organizers were still registering some of the 1500 people expected for the reunion Thursday evening, when the storm struck.
Barbara Sanders, who graduated in the class of 1958, was helping to sign in alumni when she said something about the windows caught her eye. "I looked up and I saw debris just blowing way up there. And before my mind could accept what it was--or figure out what it was--all the glass in the front, you could hear it breaking and the wind started coming in and you could feel it and people were scurrying to get downstairs in the basement."
Eventually, the roof of the school blew away. "To feel kind of the pressure--the air pressure and the sounds and everything--following you down the stairs is quite an amazing experience," said Sanders.
Reunion organizers and visiting alumni turned their attention to helping with the cleanup. They gathered informally at a parking lot along Highway 71 trying to learn about volunteering opportunities or to coordinate individual get-togethers.
Barb Wenzler, class of 1966, came from Michigan to the reunion. She brought her grandchildren, hoping to show them landmarks from her childhood. "We kept talking about grandma's high school and 'I'm going to show you where I graduated from,' and now that's not a possibility," said Wenzler.
But Wenzler has volunteered in several clean-up efforts in disaster areas, including New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. She didn't expect the experience would apply to the town where her parents still live.
"This is my home and it's a little bit different when it hits your home than when you're looking at it from an outsider's viewpoint," said Wenzler.
Carol Taggart, one of the main organizers of the reunion, said her phones are ringing nonstop from alumni who are calling her to find out how they can help.
Taggart sent out the 7,000 invitations about a month ago and expected nearly 2000 people, including the 1500 who registered. She said the community is suffering from the destruction.
"The reunion is a small part of it," Taggart said. "It's disappointing. I don't know how else to say it."
After she calls vendors to cancel services, Taggart anticipates she'll help direct people to cleanup efforts.
Jim Stach, of St. Paul, was looking forward to seeing his high school buddies. He said a lot of his friends from the class of 1955 still live in the area and are safe.
"Now you feel kinda guilty worrying about seeing a lot of folks, when a lot of other people are worried about where they're going to sleep tonight," Stach said.