Leveled by an April tornado, Taopi is coming back to life
Hanging on Mary Huntley's garage wall is a clock frozen in time — permanently set to 10:44 p.m.
“That is exactly when the tornado went through and took a wall out of my building,” she said, referring to an old grocery store that she and her family spent years rehabbing into a city hall and community space.
“It was kind of cool. We knew exactly what time that flew off the wall,” said Huntley, the longtime mayor of this community of about 65 people just five miles from the Iowa border.
The April 12 EF2 tornado leveled or severely damaged nearly every structure in town, resulting in about $1.5 million in damage.
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It destroyed a barn, a grain silo laid crumpled on the side of the road, trees snapped power lines. Homes that were still standing suffered such bad damage they needed to be torn down and built anew.
Despite the tragedy endured by Taopi residents four months ago, Huntley is upbeat. All around her are signs of progress.
Huntley pointed to a deep blue modular home just down the street.
“He believes he'll be living in there before the end of August. He's the first person who is totally displaced and able to come back to his new home,” she said. “It’s exciting.”
Huntley said emergency management officials from Mower County and the sheriff's department were onsite almost immediately, calling in dumpster companies to haul away debris, tree specialists to cut and grind up fallen trees.
Amy Lammey, Mower County’s emergency manager, called it the worst weather-related emergency she'd seen in her career.
She and her colleagues set up camp in a trailer, working well into the night for days after the tornado hit. The event taught her team a lot, including the importance of having a portable working space.
At the time, they borrowed an emergency mobile unit from nearby Freeborn County. Now they have their own, equipped with a couch, space for four people to work and a bathroom. The unit can go anywhere when hitched to the back of a pickup truck.
“We have a home, we have our resources, we have our stuff, we're ready to go,” she said. “And kind of the sense of a trailer brings the people that they know that we're there where they know we're there to help."
Lammey said the trailer will be used as shelter during training exercises, at the upcoming county fair and during what's likely to be more and more unpredictable weather events.
Back in Taopi, Angie Schmitz recalled she had just gone to bed the night the tornado hit.
"Not even 10 minutes, [I] was laying in there and got woken up by the wind. I didn't make it downstairs,” she said.
In moments, the tornado ripped away an entire side of her 157-year-old house, leaving it looking like a dollhouse, each room exposed.
Recently, as Schmitz peered into the pit of her old foundation, she said she’s waiting on insurance settlements to start rebuilding. She already has the blueprints drawn up for a smaller house, but a bigger front porch.
Schmitz said she briefly thought about moving elsewhere. But she's too closely tied to Taopi — born and raised here, with siblings and parents nearby.
You can't recreate that type of community, she said.
"Our families came in and helped everybody you know, if I wouldn't have had my sister to go through it with me, I wouldn't be able to do it,” she said.
‘He wouldn't want to move’
In the days after the tornado, Brady Voigt, who also grew up here, made the same calculation with his husband.
Standing in the middle of his home, still under repair, Voigt said that he'd had to convince his husband from St. Paul to move to the small town in the first place.
“And then after the tornado, I actually said to him, ‘You know, this is our chance. If you're interested in not living here anymore.’ And he said that after how the response went, and how generous the community was, he wouldn't want to move,” Voigt said.
Voigt said the singular event solidified the community's identity. No one went through this tragedy alone because they had each other.
And he's excited to share Taopi’s next chapter with a new family building a house on land where a home damaged by the tornado once stood.
Back in her garage, Mayor Mary Huntley said she's thinking about Taopi's future too, like where they’ll rebuild the city hall.
She pointed to the broken clock from the old city hall on her wall.
“I think we'll take it with us, dirt and all.”