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Ore. town begins slow cleanup after rare tornado

Elsie Sartin, 74, points to the roof on her back porch at her condemned home the day after a tornado destroyed it Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010, in Aumsville, Ore. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)
Elsie Sartin, 74, points to the roof on her back porch at her condemned home the day after a tornado destroyed it Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010, in Aumsville, Ore. (Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

AUMSVILLE, Ore. — The dump trucks rolled into this tiny Oregon town before daybreak today as families began the long process of rebuilding after a rare tornado ripped the roofs off houses and sent trees crashing into yards and porches.

The town of Aumsville, Ore., about 50 miles south of Portland, survived the twister with damage to 50 houses and four commercial buildings. Despite a horrific mess that would indicate otherwise in one downtown neighborhood, no one was seriously injured.

Of the damaged houses, 10 were condemned. One of them belonged to 74-year-old Elsie Sartin, who was scheduled to undergo heart surgery today. Instead, she was pulling what she could from her home — one that the city explicitly forbade her from entering.

“Come on, come arrest me,” Sartin said. “At least then I’d have a place to sleep.”

Sartin was sitting by her kitchen window just before noon Tuesday to watch chunks of hail fall in her yard when she saw “stuff start flying, roof tiles, a tree,” and ducked into a corner.

The roof of her house was gone. Water pooled on a carpet near her kitchen, the result of “my air conditioning unit turning into a sprinkler system” as her roof gushed water after the storm, she said.

She silently gathered the last of her belongings from her cupboards, including a shrubby 15-year-old La Jolla bougainvillea she hung from a hook in the ceiling of her bedroom.

“It’s just too much,” she said. “I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know which way to go.”

She spent Tuesday night on a couch in her son’s home next door. He, too, was told to gather his things and leave, but the city hasn’t yet condemned his house.

The rest of the town continued picking up the pieces today. The city’s power was back up, even in damaged homes, and the town’s Christmas tree was lit.

The city also waited for Gov. Ted Kulongoski to decide whether to declare the area a disaster. Such a declaration would bring dollars to the area for rebuilding — something city administrator Maryann Hills said is badly needed.

“Community spirit remains high,” Hills said. “We’re just rejoicing that we’re coming out of this so well.”

Terry Lindemann, who operates his home business, Mr. Fixet, in Aumsville, said the tornado missed his home but struck a neighbor’s two houses away, lifting the home from its foundation. Lindemann said he saw the woman with a toddler in her arms when he ran to the house after the storm blew over.

She couldn’t open her front door, so Lindemann kicked it in. They ran to the back porch, but Lindemann heard the remnants of the roof snapping and falling, so they ran back toward the front of the house.

It was, he said, a difficult night, but he was happy his home survived without much damage.

Stacia Melendy also spent a difficult night on Tuesday without sleep. She said the adrenaline was still racing for her more than 12 hours after the storm this morning as her husband — back less than a month after serving in Afghanistan — was adjusting the tarp covering a hole in their roof and assessing damage.

“They always say it sounds like a freight train, right?” Melendy said. “That wasn’t it. It was more like a high whiny whisper, kind of a long ‘shhhh.’”

The city has not estimated how much the storm will cost, but is hoping for state money to help with the personnel costs after bringing in neighboring police departments, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office and asking its own staff to work overtime. Volunteers from the American Red Cross were asking residents to give their best estimates of the damage.

Don Thomson, a spokesman for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said no incidents of looting Tuesday night were reported.

“This is a tight-knit community,” Hills said. “You always have neighbors helping neighbors.”

Tornadoes in Oregon are rare. Tuesday’s twister was the first to touch down in the state since Dec. 9, 2009, when a tornado hit Lincoln County near the coast, according to the National Weather Service. Eleven homes and three cars were damaged, but no one was hurt.

The latest twister was one of four in Oregon in the past decade, all causing only property damage, the weather service said. In the 1990s, at least 16 tornadoes touched down, most causing minor damage. No people were injured, but six calves were killed at a dairy near Newberg in December 1993.

On April 5, 1972, a tornado that started in Portland crossed the Columbia River and killed six people, injured about 300 more and caused $3 million in damage in the Vancouver, Wash., area.



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