Baumgarten: There’s nowhere to run on the prairie
I had been asleep when I got a text Monday night. One of my reporters told me she was going to Watford City to cover a tornado and asked if I wanted to come along.
At first I thought it was a dream, but I soon realized that it was no dream for the people living south of the Oil Patch town in a group of RV parks and crew camps.
It was a total nightmare.
Three of us hurried as fast as we could, though the drive took us almost two hours — much of it in the dark and rain. We had left in the daylight, but at times it seemed we were driving into a black abyss. The rain was so blinding that we had to stop once along the road.
We finally made it up to the set of campers and trailers. It wasn’t far from Highway 85, but driving down the gravel road made it seem like it was in the middle of nowhere. We walked to the edge of a camp overlooking the RV park that was hit, or what was left of it. Flashing emergency lights lit the area as my camera clicked.
I could see there was damage, but I couldn’t fully understand the extent of it all until I looked on the screen of my camera. Even though it was dark, I could make out the thin wall of a trailer lying on the ground. Wood and scraps of metal littered the ground. A mattress that someone once slept in was hundreds of feet away from its original lot.
“What a mess.”
That was all I could think that night. I wondered how many people were injured and how miraculous it would be if no one was dead. I also knew that the next day people would have to pick up the pieces of their homes, and lives, when the sun broke.
This wasn’t my first tornado. I remember seeing twisters during my childhood, though I was lucky enough to never be caught in one. Whenever it got really windy or there was a tornado warning, the family ran into the basement to wait it out.
I do recall in the summer of 2009, when a tornado formed less than a mile from our home. Dad had entertained the thought of going north or south, telling us he was concerned. We decided again that the basement was our best option.
Hours later, we learned the twister fell right on top of our neighbors farmstead. The roof of the barn was taken off. The corrals were torn apart and the chicken coup was gone, along with some sheep and hens. Thank goodness that no one was killed.
A tornado is a scary beast, but the only thing that is more terrifying is knowing that you have no place to go. My neighbors and family had a basement if needed. But those living in crew camps or RV parks only have four sides on wheels. There is no shelter, no basement, nowhere to hide.
No one, including myself, would ever wish such a horrible fate on anyone. These people have literally lost everything they have, except their family and friends. They deserve all the support we can give.
However, this was an accident waiting to happen. North Dakota can be cruel to those who are not prepared for its harsh weather — snow, wind, rain, hail and tornados. It would be useless to place any blame on anyone since it is over.
But it could have been prevented. There are no sirens on the rolling hills of the Oil Patch outside of city limits. Most of the camps do not have sheltered areas. Even after the fact, there are no addresses, and we don’t know who is living in the camps. Finding someone we don’t know is missing, or even finding the location of a disaster will prove to be torture for emergency responders. In these situations, every minute counts and every minute spent finding a location or person could be used saving a life.
I can’t give any solid suggestions, but something must be done. We were lucky that no one died and injuries were low — aside from a 15-year-old girl Ainslea Oliphant — but it could have been so much worse. Government officials and businesses that own RV parks and crew camps need to come up with an emergency plan to prevent loss of life and injury. Someone needs to build shelters for people to run to. There must be measures in place to give residents enough warning when possible. And maybe it is time to start keeping track of transient workers so emergency staff know where to go, who they are looking for and how many victims they are dealing with.
It’s time to be proactive instead of waiting for an accident to happen before we act. Because, in the prairies, there is truly nowhere to run.
Baumgarten is the assistant editor of The Dickinson Press. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and read her blog at baumsaway.areavoices.com.