After the storm: post frame builder helps shop owner return to business post-tornado

At 6:25 p.m. on April 10, 2011, the lights went off at the home of contractor Willie Kimmons. He didn’t know it then, but an F-3 tornado, with peak winds of 130 to 140 miles an hour had just blown part of his home town community of Merrill, Wis., off the map.

Rivers Edge Gifts soon after the 2011 tornado

Rivers Edge Gifts soon after the 2011 tornado hit Merrill, Wis. - Wick Building photo

Kimmons lives just to the north of the 4-mile swathe of damage and experienced nary a misplaced branch. That’s fortunate not only for him but for customers of Wick Buildings needing his immediate help with damage assessment, repair and rebuilding. He is Wick’s independent contractor for the north and central Wisconsin region.

Willie Kimmons' crew

Willie Kimmons' crew moves fast to start the rebuilding process. - Wick Building photo

One of the things that stood out on a drive through the damaged area, particularly the hard-hit industrial park, was how well the post-frame buildings endured the tornado as well as straight-line winds. One building, empty because it was recently purchased and being cleaned for occupation, was hit head-on but still stood tall despite missing one wall. “You could tell it was hit head-on,” Kimmons explained. “The trees behind it on one side were leaning in one direction and the trees on the other side of it were leaning in the opposite direction.” Exposed were the building’s fully intact trusses.

Next door, however, was a tattered metal building, with insulation hanging everywhere, no siding or roof and nearly destroyed beyond recognition.

Down the street, two more Wick post frames had received heavy damage, but were repairable.

On his first drive through the area Kimmons saw the comparisons and couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. “We were right in the heart of things and those [post-frame] buildings stood up superior to other structures,” he said.

“The thing that was the most amazing with this tornado,” he continued, “was how it cut the steel. What kind of force was it to do that? I didn’t see this, but a General Telephone flag, someone said they found one literally stuck into a telephone phone. That’s just a piece of plastic!”

The unoccupied post-frame building with the intact trusses had structural damage that required demolition and rebuilding. “The south end wall was blown out. The other north wall was sucked inward and one sidewall had about six inches of lift and dropped down, Kimmons described.

That could wait. Needing more immediate assistance was a 60- by 84-foot gift shop packed with stock – including a lot of stained glass – two blocks away.

Rivers Edge Gifts after the tornado repair

Rivers Edge Gifts was one of the first back in business following major tornado damage.

The west wall, Kimmons describes, “was like someone took a hacksaw and put cuts in it.” The overhead doors at the loading dock were blown completely off along with all the other doors and windows, creating a perfect storm for further damage and leaving Rivers Edge Gifts completely exposed to the elements. To top it off, the bad weather continued.

“The Good Lord was not cooperating for that week,” Kimmons said. “The wind just kept blowing. The wind was blowing from directions it never comes from.”

Owner Laurie O’Day agrees. “It didn’t matter which part of the building they were working on, that’s the direction the wind would be coming from. If they were working on the south side that’s the side the wind would be coming from. If they were working on the north side, that’s the direction the wind would be coming from. It was amazing. And the rain was just awful.”

There was a major snowstorm three days after the tornado.

metal building in Merrill, WI tornado area

A metal building next door to Rivers Edge Gifts was also severely damaged.

Getting a good roof on the building was the number-one priority. “I think Laurie called me that Monday morning about 9:30 and the crew was here by 2:00 that afternoon. Wick literally pulled one crew off a job as they were headed for Iowa,” Kimmons recalls, adding, “You look at something like that and you don’t know where to start. We just got things measured out with the roof because that was the most important.”

“The roof was off more than half. There wasn’t a lot left of the roof,” Kimmons says. “The purlins were blown off.”

Because of the situation, the process was put on a fast track with the blessings of the insurance company.

Metal building destroyed in Merrill, WI tornado

This metal building suffered a direct hit from the tornado. It took many months before issues were resolved and the owners were able to rebuild.

Post frame building damaged by tornado

This post-frame building, sitting next door to the metal building above, was also heavily damaged by the tornado but still stood tall. Major buckling, however, required demolition. It has since been replaced with another Wick Building post frame. - Wick Building photo

Despite haste, care needed to be taken. The building was twisted and supports compromised, putting pressure in areas not designed for such loads. “You need to be careful of anything with pressure as they relieve that pressure,” Kimmons warns, “so that it doesn’t decapitate you.”

At the insurance company’s request, a Wick engineer made an onsite evaluation of the building to verify that it could be rebuilt, looking at all the trusses, connections and columns to assure the strength of the 24-year-old building.

“I don’t think it could have taken much more and it would have been gone,” Kimmons says of the building’s chances during the tornado. “Structurally it held up extremely well.”

To get an idea of the wind’s force, the outdoor sign for the business was found more than 15 miles away.

The work included straightening the building, re-roofing, rebuilding a portion of the building and re-skinning the entire exterior. Coordination with other local businesses was needed to repair electrical and HVAC systems before a new ceiling could be installed.

“This entire wall, we had to straighten a few columns over here because they were a little bit twisted,” Kimmons describes as he offers a tour of the work. “This wall, about 30 feet we had to literally dig right out to the bottom of the column and we literally pushed it back in to straighten it, then lowered it down. To lower it down, we disconnected the trusses and we took a little of the columns there and reset them and reattached them.”

All the work was done and the business reopened June 1. O’Day believes it was the first business in the industrial park to recover. Kimmons went on to work on two post-frame re-builds and a repair.

It was the first time Kimmons had worked on a disaster project of this nature, and despite a positive outcome, he’s hoping it to be his last. “It was emotional for me,” he admits. “The damage was heart-wrenching and it wasn’t even my business or home or garage.”  – By Sharon Thatcher – Rural Builder



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