Cokato resident responds to help victims of recent tornado
By Kristen Miller
COKATO, MN Oftentimes in the aftermath of a natural disaster, lending an ear can be just as important as lending a hand.
That’s what Heidi Smith of Cokato realized when she responded with the American Red Cross three days after a tornado struck Wadena June 17.
Less than a month earlier, Smith attended a Foundations of Mental Health training course through the American Red Cross, Central Minnesota Chapter, based out of St. Cloud.
She originally heard about the course from the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted school nurse, where Smith is a student services school social worker at the middle school.
First, Smith went to an informational meeting where she became aware of the need for mental health workers in recovery following natural disasters.
Then, she took a full day of training, making her a Disaster Mental Health responder through the Red Cross.
The course is to prepare licensed mental health professional to provide for and respond to the psychological needs of people across the continuum of disaster preparedness, response, and recovery, according to the Red Cross course description.
There are many different ways people respond to stress, Smith explained, whether they have been affected directly or indirectly.
“Many times, it’s listening to people share their story to help them begin their healing process,” Smith said.
As of June 22, the Red Cross figures showed there were 842 homes damaged because of the disaster; 113 of them were damaged and deemed inhabitable, and 170 were in need of extensive repair.
As a mental health first responder, Smith listens to victims of natural disasters such as this, to find out if there is something the Red Cross can do for them and their family to relieve some of their immediate stress.
For example, Smith told the story of one woman whose cell phone was destroyed in the tornado. The woman has called the cellular company’s customer service line and requested a replacement phone.
Because she had no insurance on the phone, they rudely told her there was nothing the company could do.
“We were just furious about that,” Smith said. “She lost her home and when they couldn’t make that kind of an adjustment, it was frustrating.”
As a responder with the Red Cross, Smith went straight to the cell phone provider herself and asked if there was anything more they could do.
The sales representative, who had also lost his apartment in the storm, called the corporate offices requesting the company help out these tornado victims.
The woman was able to get a used phone with her numbers transferred to it, as did others who lost their phone in the storm.
“There were a lot of opportunities [to help] like that to take something off their list,” Smith said.
She also found herself just lending an ear and listening to victims and their family members.
She was really able to connect with the teachers and staff at Wadena-Deer Creek High School, which was totaled from the F4 tornado, according to Minnesota Public Radio.
The staff was told they could retrieve two personal items from their rooms, Smith explained.
“That was hard for me,” Smith said, wondering what two personal items she would retrieve from her office.
As a school social worker, Smith knows that students, as well as staff, have made the school their home-away-from-home.
“For some kids, there is a lot of stress of being at home,” Smith said. “The school is their safe place, and that’s now gone.”
Smith saw a lot of destruction in those four days she spent working for the Red Cross.
“It looked like a war zone on some of the blocks you went down,” Smith said.
Some of the damage she saw included windows in cars blown out by pressure, uprooted trees, a cemetery with stones destroyed, dishes left untouched while an adjacent wall was ripped off, and school buses upside down.
She also saw a lot of resilience in the victims and was touched by one home whose residents had spray-painted praise to God for keeping their family safe during the storm. The roof had been ripped off of the house in the tornado.
Smith was also impressed by a comment she heard, “The tornado was an act of nature, but what you see here with all these people helping us, is an act of God.”
Along with that, Smith also heard about a lot of close calls.
In many situations, she heard about people who had just headed to the basement before the tornado struck their home.
“That is where you need to go,” Smith advised. “It’s the safest place to be.”
Smith is proud to be a part of the American Red Cross response team and gives praise to the organization for how efficient and diligent the organization works in a disaster.
She was also impressed by her fellow volunteers, who were ready to help whenever called.
As a mother of two, Smith was also grateful to her husband, Darrell. Without his support, she could not have volunteered her time to help others, she said.
Smith encourages others to donate either time or financial support to the American Red Cross Central Minnesota Chapter by calling (320) 251-7641.