One-year anniversary of tornado disaster

Anniversaries remind us of important events in our lives. Whether marking a birthday, a wedding, or a momentous event, an anniversary puts a pin on the calendar to remind us of something that matters to us.


Texas Avenue hosts some new homes. Photos by Chuck Lee

By Angel Wyrwas

Anniversaries remind us of important events in our lives. Whether marking a birthday, a wedding, or a momentous event, an anniversary puts a pin on the calendar to remind us of something that matters to us. Certain dates and the events that took place on them have resonance and meaning for us; they shape our sense of who we are, individually and collectively. They also allow us to grieve. Nothing could be truer of the one-year anniversary of the chaos and destruction left when an F-3 tornado descended on Baker.

Different houses and fewer trees change the landscape on the eastside of Baker.

This anniversary commemorates and highlights a strong and hopeful community. Residents talk about their memories of the tornado and the days that followed its touch down as they look at new spring skies and cloud formations with some uneasiness. Even children that did not reside in the most affected area of town have nightmares and watch the clouds relentlessly. We, as a community, young and old, know it can happen here. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Marvin and Patsy Schopp were injured and lost their home to the tornado last year. “The thing that I remember most were the friends and family that were there for us,” said Patsy. “The people and community were amazing. We were not here since we had to be in Billings for medical until July so we didn’t really see all of the physical damage. It was all gone, cleaned up when we got back.”

It was important to Schopps to put things back together fairly quickly. “We have our home on our lot,” said Patsy, “but I still don’t have much on the walls. And I miss our trees, you can’t just replace those.” She tells a story with a pang of sadness about a set of dishes that her mother probably bought with gold stamps that were given to her. “I only have one plate left,” said Patsy, “I might be able to find some but they wouldn’t be my mom’s.” However her favorite saved treasure was a piece of jewelry found around a stick. It was a necklace with a gold chain and a ruby that Marvin had given her when their daughter Emily was young. “But it’s all just stuff and you have the memories,” said Patsy, “When you loose a home after 40 years you realize you just have too much stuff.” A couple of months after the tornado Schopp’s 15-year-old cat Mitci came home and that was the best surprise of all. “She doesn’t like storms much now either,” Patsy laughed.

“I’m looking forward to having family type stuff in my house so it feels more like home. More time living in it and being there,” said Patsy. When asked about other changes over the past year Patsy said, “We don’t move as fast as we used to, there are physical changes. I am not as focused either.” That doesn’t damper her spirit though. “I definitely don’t want to do this twice,” laughed Patsy, “but I can’t live my life in fear of what might come either.”

Disaster/Emergency Services Coordinator Chuck Lee recorded over 400 volunteers in the months after the tornado and thousands of hours. “The things that were accomplished in the first 7-10 days still amazes me,” said Lee, “Businesses came in with their equipment and just worked. They could have made a lot of money but there was no question in their minds, just help. In other communities residents would have had to go through insurance, hire someone to come clean up, and make it such a long process. Baker is so fortunate and so giving.”

Since those first months progress has been slower however. Making decisions, working with insurance companies and ownership changes all take time. The landscape on the east side of Baker changed so drastically after the tornado but has changed little since then. “We have a long way to go to get back to 100%,” said Lee. More homes will be going up this next year and the Baker Lake will be drained and the tornado debris removed in an effort to move toward life before the tornado.

Merlin and Elaine Zink also lost their home to the tornado last year with quite a different story. While their home was sucked up into the funnel around them, they were left with only minor injuries. “I went to the door to see what the sirens were about and by the time I turned around to go back in our front windows were gone,” said Elaine. “The thing that stands out most still today is the people. I’m amazed at how quickly people responded. I was trapped and remember the minute the wind died down neighbors were helping me.”

Elaine said the tornado was bad but the experience of the care and kindness of people is a memory that is good. “We can be so proud of our first responders, all departments and the hospital,” said Elaine, “We had answers to questions before we had questions. It made such a difference and was truly incredible.”

Many of Zink’s possessions were strewn throughout their property and the surrounding area. Elaine recalls how caring and generous volunteers were as they worked to reclaim everything and anything they could. “The speed of the house recovery,” said Elaine, “made a huge difference. If it would have rained or stormed again before we could get to it we would have lost so much more. And people saved things that gave us the opportunity to touch it one last time before we threw it away. It was important.”

There was care behind every action. “When it was time to take the rubble of the house away,” shared Elaine, “Even though we knew it was time, the volunteers in the bulldozers paused, watched us, waited and gave us the extra minute we needed to say goodbye, even without telling them.”

Like Schopps, Elaine says there was a houseful of ‘stuff’. “We had to say goodbye to what we had, be happy we had it that long and be grateful when we found the things that weren’t broken,” said Elaine. A long time collector of Precious Moments figurines Elaine shared a story about finding them after the storm. “We found some of the ones that were inside styrofoam inside the boxes sitting out unharmed and unwrapped,” said Elaine, “You have to have respect for the power of a storm that can do that!” The special find for Zinks though was a chalk drawing their girls had given Merlin of his grain elevator. It now has a beautiful new frame.

   Zinks hope to be in their new home by October. “It is interesting to see the neighborhood coming back,” said Elaine, “It brings joy to see someone’s place done. Though it will never be the same, the landscape is forever changed. I don’t want to be scared but I don’t ever want to forget. I don’t want to forget how wonderful our community is.”

Baker has changed, the people have changed, and the landscape has changed. Although there is much to mourn, there is more to celebrate and remember. Remembering the past is an important part of knowing who we are and a year later we are strong, we are hopeful and we are more than buildings, we are home.