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COLEHARBOR - A straight-line wind of 100 mph forced tiny Coleharbor to its knees Wednesday night and townspeople tried to find their feet Thursday after the worst disaster in the town's 101-year history.

They must go from adrenaline to determination to rebuild. There was severe to total damage to all 50 some homes and three businesses in town.

Sheet metal, lumber and shredded power poles tore through the community in a few minutes at about 7:30 p.m. and amazingly no one was severely injured or killed from the flying debris.

People said it appeared that three separate storms converged over Coleharbor, population somewhere between 88 and 100.

People staying in a small recreational vehicle park near Highway 83 took the worst of it.

Wayne Zahn was in a camper, hanging on for dear life, as the wind rolled the camper over at least five times, sailing over the top of his nearby boat before crashing into another camper.

His nearby pickup was on its side and his boat twisted on the hitch, jamming his prized motorcycle into contorted metal.

Zahn was cut and bruised Thursday and sweating from a diabetic sugar reaction.

He tried to gather himself together in the shade so he could sort through the damage.

It was a nightmare to recollect.

"All I was doing was trying to protect my face," he said. "I didn't do such a good job," he said, pointing to a purple gash across his left temple. "I didn't know where I was."

State, county and community officials inspected the damage in the morning and declared the community and outlying area an official disaster, opening the way for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance.

Over and over, people said it could have been worse. A few people left town in an ambulance, but no one left in a hearse.

The structural toll will easily be in excess of millions, but there is no human toll to count.

Patricia Petersen, of Iowa, said she, her husband and their grandson fled the storm in their pickup and headed south down the highway.

In 20 minutes they were back. The storm had passed over.

"Our whole world was destroyed," she said. Their camper was 100 yards from where they'd left it, wrecked beyond repair, surrounded by debris, and somehow back on its bottom.

"We are very thankful," she said. Her grandson and husband were working to see what could be salvaged, but what really mattered was just fine.

Camping neighbor Viola Walter looked pretty tough Thursday morning, with bruises to her face and head and road rash on her back.

She and her husband, Leo, were eating supper in the camper and suddenly everything was moving.

The next thing they knew, they were picking themselves up off the ground, shaken and bleeding.

All that was left of their camper was the floor, a long ways and over the top of someone else's boat from where it had been parked.

"I'm thankful that we're here," Walter said.

The small town of gravel streets, normally pretty and peaceful, was a snarl of traffic, pedestrians, power and phone workers, and fallen and uprooted trees everywhere.

Some houses were invisible behind damaged and destroyed trees. At least three, possibly four homes are probably damaged beyond repair.

Coleharbor Mayor Willie Wilson said the situation was even worse than he feared when he went out again at first light.

He said the psychological effect left people not knowing whether to laugh or cry.

Mike Stebbins, a tough-built highway worker and Coleharbor city councilman, said he almost did break down when he emerged outside after the brief, ferocious storm had passed over.

"I bit my lip and put my flag back up," he said. "Crying won't help."

He said he wondered if the town could ever recover.

Still, the sounds of determination, or at least coping, were everywhere Thursday.

Equipment was at work, chain saws were buzzing and hammers were pounding as people tried to patch up roofs and windows to make their homes habitable.

Some were already visiting with insurance adjustors and people were told not to begin repairs until the adjustors had had a look.

Nearby communities sent officials over to offer everything from equipment to housing.

"We're in tough shape," the mayor said. "Everybody in town is affected. You feel bad for your neighbors and you don't know what to do for yourself."

John Martin, with the National Weather Service, inspected the damage and declared it was caused by straight-line winds, with the possibility of a powerful microburst of downward air from the storm.

He said the damage was too prevailing from west to east and too widespread to be caused by a tornado, which would have left a distinct swath.

The details of the storm's aftermath were bizarre.

A 30,000-ton railroad car was tipped on its side by the wind. Across the road, an egg from someone's camper refrigerator lay in the grass, perfectly intact.

A block or two east of Coleharbor, the twisted remains of a construction trailer were in the ditch.

It had rolled over and over across the field, strewing parts of itself along the way.

At one house, every tree was destroyed, but the orange tiger lilies waved like it was just another summer day.

Virginia Pochant was at Prairie Knights when the storm hit Coleharbor.

Her husband called and told her what had happened. She said he had to persuade her he wasn't pulling her leg, like the couple's friends like to do to each other.

Their new glassed-in addition was minus the roof and open to the sky in places and almost all the windows were shattered. Water dripped from the ceiling into buckets on the floor.

Pochant said she wasn't sure how to react, except to go forward.

"It'll be a lot of hard work, but we will persevere," she said.

The good news from the storm was that it left 2 inches of desperately needed rain, too.

Ward Eichorst, who farms two miles east of Coleharbor, told Gov. John Hoeven that the rain saved corn and sunflowers and could make all the difference for wheat and grain.

Ron Monconie, operations manager for Otter Tail Power, had 30 men at work in Coleharbor by Thursday afternoon.

Working 16-hour days would make it likely everyone who could be restored to electric service would be by today. Some homes would require an electrical inspection, he said.

He said four main transmission poles and two-thirds of the town's distribution poles were damaged.

"We almost have to start over," he said.

West River Telecom was in town, restoring phone service and getting ready to bury any remaining overhead service lines.

It donated a diesel generator and fuel to run city hall for the duration.

Coleharbor just turned 100 last summer with a big party.

This summer, it will have to start over again, not quite from scratch, but nearly so.

Stebbins, the councilman, said as a kid he always wanted to live in Coleharbor.

What he saw Thursday, peering into the heart of the destruction, made him realize why anew.

"When stuff like this happens everybody gets together," he said. "If you didn't like 'em yesterday, today it doesn't matter."

(Reach reporter Lauren Donovan at 1-888-303-5511, or

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