The lessons of the Rogers tornado: The Paulsons’ story

This is the first of several posts this week on recovering from tornadoes.

September 2006


June 1, 2008

Christy Paulson of Rogers, Minn., was upstairs after putting her sons to bed, watching TV and not paying much attention to the darkening weather outside on September 16 2006. Her husband, TJ, knew a late summer storm was coming and, because he “always liked storms,” he went downstairs to watch. (Listen)

“All of a sudden it hit pretty hard,” TJ, told me Sunday afternoon, both sitting in the dining room of their home which was in the path of a tornado that destroyed several homes in the neighborhood and killed a girl a few doors down. “All of the furniture on the deck went across the deck and just flew off. That was about the same time we felt the house shaking and we said, ‘OK, we’ve got to get to the basement.'” A 250 pound grill was launched off the deck and onto the back lawn.

“All of a sudden my ears plugged up,” Christy said. “I jumped out of bed and he was already running up the stairs. We each ran to a different kid’s bedroom. I could barely open my son’s door. We ran down the stairs as fast as we could. ”

“Right after we reached the bottom of the stairs,” TJ continued,” that’s when the windows in the back of the house here blew out.”

“That’s when I thought we were toast; I thought we were never going to make it,” Christy said.

Seconds later, by the time they reached the basement, it was over…

The Paulsons were lucky. The tornado hit 25 feet from their house. Their roof, siding, deck, windows, and most of the interior had to be replaced. Much of the damage was caused by the whirling rubble of their neighbors’ homes.

The Paulsons spent that night in their basement, then got up the next morning to clean up the mess. It was TJ’s birthday. The process of rebuilding took 6-8 months. (Listen)

They, like the other victims of the Rogers tornado, have a unique perspective on tornado recovery to share with the residents of Hugo, whose neighborhoods were ravaged by tornadoes a week ago.

For example:

  • TJ called the insurance company the next day. Because the Paulson’s house had been damaged by a hailstorm a year earlier, he already had a list of companies to call for specific parts of the house, and he called the homebuilder for the names of subcontractors in the initial construction. (Listen)
  • “The insurance companies send so much paperwork,” Christy said. Said TJ, “The first time (the hailstorm) we used a contractor and just said, ‘you guys do it all.’ This time we decided we wanted more control so we could decide when things would be done and how much it would cost us.” It was a smart move, as it turned out. Some of their neighbors — and I’ll have more about this, perhaps, in a subsequent post — now have liens on their homes because a general contractor didn’t pay a subcontractor.
  • How insurance works: “They come out and they look at everything.,” says Christy. “For catastrophe claims it takes a long time,” according to TJ. “But they figure it out and within a couple of days they send you an itemized sheet that says, ‘here’s your damages, here’s how much we believe it would cost to replace it and here’s a check.'”

    But that check isn’t the extent of what an insurance company pays. After getting bids for various jobs, the insurance companies send supplemental checks. “We got five or six supplemental checks,” TJ said. “The initial check they sent out was about $40,000, but when all was said and done, our damage was over $100,000. You find more damage as you go.”

    That was one of the frustrating parts for Christy. Every time a damage claim was filed, a different insurance adjuster showed up.


  • Don’t use “storm chasers,” companies that visit damaged neighborhoods and leave fliers after storms. “Everybody who came to our door and put stuff on our door, we did not call them and we told the neighbors not to call them,” TJ said. “Do your own looking.” (Listen)
  • Before you clean away debris, take pictures of everything. “I took pictures of the garbage pile, when I threw stuff in the garbage pile, ” TJ said, ” because what happens is if you don’t — like our grill, for example — I didn’t want to leave it here for two weeks by the time the insurance guy could get out, so by having a picture of it I could say, ‘See? I had a grill. It got destroyed.'”
  • The media. (Listen) “We learned which one is the most in-your-face,” said Christy. It was Channel 5 – KSTP.

    “They camped out right on our corner, for the entire time,” TJ said. “At night, in the morning, and we’re just trying to get our stuff cleaned up and I’d walk out of the garage with the dog. The only clean spot we had was the front yard. I’d be out walking the dog, and I’d have reporters come up and say, ‘Hey can we ask you a couple of questions?’ And all of a sudden a camera comes out, and they start bugging you, and I’m just trying to walk my dog!”

    “The way they would ask the questions was so disrespectful,” according to Christy. “They immediately wanted to go to the little girl who died: ‘Did you know her? Did you ever meet her?’ It made you feel so bad the way that they did it; you could tell the story that they wanted.”

  • Gawkers. Even people who lived in the neighborhood walked around taking pictures of damaged homes. “Don’t just walk around,” Christy said. “Come help.” (Listen)
  • There was a good side of the situation. Neighbors got to know each other. “I wouldn’t say we weren’t close,” said Christy. “But we didn’t know a whole lot of our neighbors. I met our next-door neighbors, maybe, twice. I hardly knew their names. But since then I’ve made a point to do National Night Out and organize that every year, just to get to know everybody. We’ve become a lot closer as a neighborhood, and we’re looking out for each other a little more.”

    Now both pay close attention to the weather. They spent portions of Saturday in the basement when the storms went through.

    • Bob: This is great stuff. Did this family have a suggestion on a better way the media should do things? Because no question, all the coverage generates volunteer interest and help. I wonder if they had a way they would have preferred media would approach.

      (Of course, as someone in Hugo assigned to try to find family members/relatives of the young boy who died… I never went up to people and asked out of the gated about the boy. It was always about their story first.. how were they doing… in a genuine, non-patronizing way. I see my job as a job, my first interaction is that of a neighbor and a Minnesotan, if that makes sense.)

    • Bob Collins

      My sense — and that’s all it is — is people would be willing to tell their stories to the media — us — more if they felt the media — us — were interested in their stories. But we too often are perceived as already knowing what the story is, and then needing some tape to go with it.

      I think your instincts — not surprisingly — are correct. You approached with a genuine interest in how the people in Hugo , in this case, were getting along. The willingness to let the people guide us to the information, I think, makes a lot more sense than trying to guide people were interviewing to the information we think “people want to hear”….. if THAT makes sense.

      The way I get around all of this, of course, is simply to wait two years to do the interview. (g)