Photojournalists document tornado history: April 10, 2011
TINA L. SCOTT
In April, 2011, the Merrill Foto News had a three-person editorial staff made up of Collin Lueck, Editor; Kelly O’Day, Sports Editor; and Jamie Taylor, Photographer/Reporter. While no longer employed with the Foto News, each has continued on his own career path since and is successful in his own right. But it is unlikely any of them will ever forget their experience covering the April 10, 2011, EF3 tornado and the resulting destruction, cleanup efforts, and rebuilding efforts in Merrill.
Jamie Taylor is still employed as a photojournalist and recently shared his thoughts on the event and the editorial team’s coverage. “This was one of the biggest stories of my over 40-year career as a community journalist,” Taylor said. “And I’m proud of the work I did, because in many ways, it was from the heart.”
“Storms have always been exciting to me,” said Kelly O’Day when asked to share his thoughts. “I remember when I was 10 years old or so and was on the front porch during one of the rare storms bad enough where I was supposed to be in the basement. After watching sheets of rain wash over the front yard, an ear-splitting crack of lightning struck a tree in front of me. It snapped an 80-foot tree off 15 feet up the trunk, and the tree crashed to the ground at the edge of the lawn, causing a foot-high shock wave to roll through the lawn toward me. It petered out at the house. I ran into the basement in my excitement to tell everyone of a moving lawn, but then got yelled at for being up there.”
“I’ve lived in the Bloody Sixth for a long time,” O’Day continued. “And the 2011 tornado first crossed the west side of the Sixth before heading past the Industrial Park and Airport on its NE path. I was watching it on the back porch and wanted nothing more than to jump in my car and get ahead of it for the best photos.”
But his family had other ideas. “My family felt fear of the storm and wanted me to be in the basement with them, so we made a pillow/blanket fort, and I told them we would be fine,” he said.
“As soon as it blew through, we went out into the neighborhood and everyone came out of their houses to look at all the trees the tornado dropped,” O’Day said. “I’m so thankful my two huge basswood trees survived, but other neighbors weren’t so fortunate. Across the street a huge hardwood was demolished. The only damage we suffered was to some shingles on the west side of the roof.”
But he couldn’t be held back any longer. With the storm danger past, O’Day was on his way. “I immediately headed to the area just NE of the Airport to get photos,” he said, “And saw a beautiful extended neighborhood trashed by the tornado. Several of my friends owned houses there, and it was heartbreaking. I could empathize with the loss all these people were feeling, knowing many family treasures and photos were ruined. I have many family treasures and photos myself and couldn’t imagine them destroyed. So many of these people were just bewildered by what had happened to them, although we can all agree the tragedy could have been much worse.”
O’Day was one of the first to get clearance to be on scene. “The emergency response team let me through because they knew I needed to document it,” O’Day said. “Everyone was very good about allowing me to take photos. I guess they just expected it since they were so used to seeing me with my camera. I always bought my own equipment for the best quality, and if I didn’t have it with me, people would frequently say, ‘Where’s your camera?’ Even Lincoln Wood let me inside their building so I could document the significant damage.”
Collin Lueck had been at home when the tornado siren sounded. “I was at home on the southeast side of the city. What could possibly go wrong on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in April, right?
“Things changed pretty fast. I remember the sky overhead – black to the west and blue to the east, with a definite dividing line right above us,” Lueck said. “When the tornado sirens went off, I walked out to the sidewalk and looked toward the Courthouse. I remember a sudden blast of wind that blew dirt and sand down the street like a sandstorm.”
Lueck said the tornado never really came near his home, so he didn’t have any damage or firsthand accounts.
“The first we heard of any damage was when family started calling us to make sure we were OK,” he said. “While we were perfectly fine, my wife’s cousin and her husband, Bobbi and Andy Lee, lost their house on ROW Road. When my wife was relaying the information to me, I couldn’t quite grasp what she was telling me: ‘You mean the roof blew off?’ ‘No, the house is completely gone!’”
“On the night of the tornado,” Lueck said, “It was nearly impossible to get in or out of the impacted areas. Either the access roads were blocked by downed trees and debris, or by law enforcement barricades. Law enforcement and first responders were doing their best to control a chaotic situation. I wasn’t able to gain access that first night and didn’t see the magnitude of the damage until the following days.”
“By the time we got out there a couple of days later,” Lueck said, “I had a much better understanding of what had happened but was still awed by the level and randomness of the damage.”
“When the tornado sirens went off, I was sitting on my front porch on East 1st Street,” Taylor said. “Strangely, I didn’t hear anything that led me to believe Merrill had been hit by a twister until the news reports from Wausau television stations broke the news. By this time, it was dark, and I knew it was too dangerous to go into that area at that time.”
“I actually didn’t get into the damaged area until the second day after the tornado, due to needing get clearance from the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department,” Taylor said. “Once I got access, I broke the cardinal rule of journalism almost immediately by getting emotionally involved with everyone out there. After all, these were my fellow residents of Merrill.
At the same time, I tried to be sensitive to their plight and treated them as I would want someone else to treat me if the situation was reversed. I only had a couple incidents where people asked me not to photograph them, and I honored their wishes.”
Documenting the destruction
“The first time getting out into those hardest-hit areas,” Lueck said, “My initial feeling really was disbelief. Seeing all the trees that had been snapped off or uprooted was pretty incredible. The buildings could be rebuilt relatively quickly, but it would be decades before new trees could grow to replace what was destroyed. The entire landscape had changed in some areas.”
“We did a lot of walking to get photos in the hardest hit areas – you had to park at the edge and walk in,” he said. “I remember walking down the shoulder of Hillside Drive between Airport Road and Pier Street, seeing how dramatically the area had changed since I last saw it. With the trees destroyed, I was seeing houses (or what was left of them) that I never knew were there.”
“People were surprisingly welcoming of our efforts,” Lueck said. “When we encountered homeowners, they were more likely to direct us to the most dramatic shots than to chase us off their property.”
“Over the next few days, I headed back out several times to get the best photos I could,” O’Day said. “From initial damage to clean-up efforts. Everyone pitched in and did such a great job of helping those who suffered loss. The Merrill community really rises up and pitches in during times of turmoil. I put the camera down to help some of my friends haul furniture and belongings out of their damaged houses.
“When I think about the days following the tornado, my first thought is always the sound of chainsaws,” Lueck said. “Thousands of trees were destroyed and had to be cleaned up. It took weeks in some areas, and that sound of chainsaws was ever present. And all the insulation – mostly bright pink – stuck to every tree and bush for miles.”
“I was fortunate to have Kelly O’Day and Jamie Taylor, two exceptional photojournalists, on my staff at the time,” former Foto News Editor Lueck said. “And they were more than capable of capturing riveting images and telling the stories from the field. We all understood what a significant event this was and that we were recording an important piece of Merrill’s history as it unfolded. I did get out to the affected areas a couple of times, but I mostly covered the volunteer efforts, fundraising, and emergency management side of the story.
“I realized this was an event of historical significance for Merrill, and I tried my best to create a visual record of what I saw and tried very hard to get images and stories in the paper every week for the first couple months,” Taylor said. “I knew by the amount of donations and volunteers pouring in to help that the rest of the community was concerned about the affected people.”
“Thousands of volunteers helped out with the tornado cleanup,” Lueck said. “That went on for months. Volunteers came from Merrill, the surrounding areas and beyond. In April 2011 alone, volunteers collectively clocked over 5,000 hours. The Red Cross and Salvation Army started operations in Merrill right away to provide relief to tornado victims. I remember going over to St. John Lutheran Church, where volunteers were preparing meals to be distributed to victims and cleanup workers.”
“The generosity of the community also was on display as donations to funds established by the Merrill Chamber of Commerce Foundation and the Merrill Area United Way exceeded all expectations,” he said.
“Over the course of a few months, I was able to document the clean-up efforts and the beginning of the rebuilding process,” Taylor said. “I got to personally know many of these people, and the work became personal for me. I spent at least an hour or two every day driving through the area, taking photos and talking to people. Watching the cleanup turn to reconstruction, and seeing how much this meant to the residents was actually inspiring.”
Let’s make a book about it
“Collin, Jamie and I just had too many quality photos to be used in the Foto News,” O’Day said.
“As a three-person staff, I thought we really put our collective hearts into this extended coverage,” Taylor said. “When we decided to publish the special publication as a fund raiser, I knew we had more than enough photographs over the first few weeks, that told the story of how most of these people were determined to rebuild.”
“When we put together the picture book for the Foto News,” Lueck said, they also asked people to send in their photos of the storm and the damage. “I was extremely grateful for the amazing response we received. Even after the newspaper staff had taken hundreds of photos, people were sending us pictures of things we’d never seen. I think that book turned out great, and I give credit for that to the entire community – it’s their story, we just put it together.
Things to marvel about … like the resilience of the human spirit … and miracles
“Now whenever I’m out that way I marvel at the beautiful neighborhood, built up better than before, but denuded of all the trees that brought so much character to it,” O’Day said. “They’re finally growing back, and some day, I suppose you won’t even notice.
When asked his greatest takeaway from the experience, O’Day said: “Just how impressed I am at the resilience of people to go from initial shock and deep disappointment to rolling with the punches and doing what needed to be done next.”
“For me,” Lueck said, “The greatest takeaway was the resilience of the community and the willingness to help each other out.”
“I’d never seen tornado damage up close and personal before, and the destructive capabilities of a tornado are unbelievable,” Lueck added. “When looking at the totality of the destruction, the fact that no lives were lost was nothing short of a miracle.”