Comforters over their heads and surrounded by pillows, Chaska native Kerianne Stuck Wright prayed while her 2-year-old daughter sang “Rain, Rain, Go Away” in their Pembroke, Kentucky cellar.
It was nearly half an hour past midnight on Dec. 11.
The sound, pressure and stress was incomprehensible.
“It’s like you were standing in the middle of a freeway and semi trucks were going 85 mph all around you,” Stuck Wright says. “It just felt like everything was getting pulled up. Everything around you feels so heavy and forceful.”
In fact, the family was taking a direct hit from a 160 mph severe tornado to her home and horse boarding property.
She feared for her family and animals’ safety. Meanwhile, the internet was down and her cell phone was dying, as she relied on texts from neighbors saying, “OK, it’s getting bad again …”
The historic storm system, declared a major disaster by President Joseph Biden, included devastating tornadoes across western Kentucky according to the National Weather Service. Over 75 people died Dec. 10-11 in the state.
Chaska High School 2008 graduate Stuck Wright calls herself lucky.
She and her daughter, Sailor, were not injured and her U.S. Army active-duty husband, Justin, was serving in Iraq at the time. Each of their six horses, two dogs and barn cats miraculously survived.
But the damage she saw was mighty.
“Everything that you think of when you think of the movie ‘Twister,’ it was all of that and more,” Stuck Wright says.
After five hours in the cellar, she walked into an inch of standing water in her home.
“Our family room was covered in debris,” she says, which included leaves and sticks. “It was just a really bizarre thing to be in the house.”
Windows and doors failed, meaning the framing was ruined and allowed water inside. The upstairs bathroom completely flooded.
Stepping outside, she found live, hot power lines downed across eight acres of pasture and helped her horses to a safe area. All of the family’s field fences were demolished by fallen trees.
Roofs ripped off two barns — one a 100-year-old staple in the community for photoshoots.
Their truck took $6,000 worth of damage; water mitigation crews estimate $10,000 just to suck moisture from the home. She expects insurance, which hasn’t visited yet due to extreme demand, to estimate at least $50,000 to $70,000 in out-of-pocket expenses.
“That was so scary,” longtime friend and Chaskan Kristen Nicholson says of hearing about the tornado. “We have a local community member that was such a big part of our community in Chaska all these years that just went through one of the most devastating natural experiences.”
Yet Stuck Wright keeps a fortunate lens.
“We are much better off then they are in Mayfield,” she says. “We’re some of the lucky ones.”
The family stayed at a nearby hotel for a few nights, but returned to their home to secure their belongings (a tarp is being used as a roof and there isn’t electricity yet.) Her husband was able to return home for a few weeks, and her Carver parents drove down immediately to help.
Many others across the states are displaced and dealing with immense loss in already-impoverished areas.
“That makes me feel guilty for having any sort of emotion because at the end of the day, we’ll be able to fix it,” says Stuck Wright, a director of physician recruitment.
“So many people have been affected,” she added. “Our little town of about 1,000 was just ravaged.”
About a mile away, 15 cattle died. A nearby barn collapsed and lost every horse they had. Two were found up the road impaled by two-by-fours, she says.
“The trauma we could’ve had,” she says. “I can’t imagine if I would’ve had to explain to (Sailor) if something bad would have happened to (our animals) … As soon as it happened my daughter was asking to go outside and check on her pony and give him a hug or a kiss.”
She explained keeping the horses outside their shelter was the best move — it could collapse on the animals if they had no way to escape. As for her two dogs, she couldn’t physically get them into the cellar.
“You spend all this time treating your animals like they’re your children, then you say ‘good luck.’ It was very difficult,” Stuck Wright says.
Closer to home, Minnesota recently saw first-of-its-kind December tornadoes on the 15th.
“We had a whopper of a storm system last weekend and that led to those extraordinary tornadoes,” says Senior Climatologist Kenneth Blumenfeld with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Though it’s hard to simply say climate change directly caused this storm system, he says climate change does influence these weather events.
“The planet is getting warmer,” he says, noting that includes air and oceans. “These strong low-pressure systems are able to pull this humid air farther north than where you would normally see and a greater intensity than you would normally see.”
Winter nights and cold days are warming three or four times faster than summers in Minnesota, he says, and wetness has trended upward through the decades.
“This kind of weather event that we had would have been much, much milder, and much, much less likely before we got into the era of modern climate change,” he says.
During the last decade tornadoes have actually trended flat or downward in terms of damage and deadliness, Blumenfeld says.
It’s why climatologists can’t say with confidence tornadoes as a whole are becoming worse and more widespread.
“But there is evidence to suggest the seasons which they occur are expanding to uncharted, new territory,” he says. “We just entered a new era where tornadoes in December are now on the table. I don’t think they’ll be common, but they’re on the table.”
That’s a big concern for Stuck Wright, who lived the impact firsthand.
She hopes it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event and has been told she can feel safe now, but she’s not so sure.
“If living on this earth means being subjected to that again, I don’t want that for my daughter. I’m terrified of climate change and it feels like everything that we have been talking about due the last decade is here now and it’s going to get worse,” Stuck Wright says. “I’m worried about the future of the earth and everybody who inhabits it.”
Stuck Wright recalled tornado drills in her Chaska middle and high schools. Each first Wednesday of every month, she’d hear the test sirens (something her current small city doesn’t have).
Yet she could have never seen this coming.
“You don’t think it’s going to happen to you until it does,” she says.
It’s why she encourages people to look into tornado safety plans: Make a plan. Get a portable phone charger. Make sure you have soft bedding, head protection, food, shoes, water, protective shelter, and items for your children.
Blumenfeld says people should know severe weather can now include winter months.
On a larger scale, folks involved with city planning or who are responsible for communities big or small have duties, too.
“They should understand the shape or the trajectory of those extremes is changing and it’s taking us into some new territory. We should expect to be occasionally surprised by things we didn’t even know were possible,” Blumenfeld says.
“It requires an open-minded reflectiveness when you think about what the climate can dish out.”
The Carver County Sheriff’s Office began training and rolling out body-worn cameras for deputies in October. According to Carver County Sheriff Jason Kamerud, everything is going as expected and is working well.
County deputies have embraced the new technology, Kamerud said, in an email. They are performing as trained, and deputies know the camera systems will corroborate that, he said.
The Sheriff’s Office hasn’t received a tremendous amount of feedback from citizens about the body-worn cameras. Overall, most people know the technology is becoming the norm and welcome the transparency video data provides, Kamerud said.
“This project was properly planned and executed,” Kamerud said. “We enjoyed the benefit of calling upon colleagues who had experience with introducing this technology, and we were able to leverage those experiences to help us be successful.”
Body-worn cameras will be a normal part of deputies’ daily lives in the Sheriff’s Office for the foreseeable future, Kamerud said. The Sheriff’s Office will continue to evaluate technologies and make appropriate adjustments along the way, he added.
The initiative has been successful on a variety of metrics, Kamerud said.
According to Kamerud, the project was completed under budget; employees and the county attorney are satisfied with the policies and procedures related to camera use; there is increased operational transparency for residents; and the in-car camera systems have been supplemented with body-worn cameras to capture additional video evidence.
The body-worn cameras were a part of the 2021 Carver County Sheriff’s Office budget and will be part of the annual budget moving forward. Around $95,000 was allocated for 2021, according to Kamerud.
According to Kamerud, body-worn cameras are generally activated when a deputy has contact with a citizen, and can be turned off when it is reasonably believed that there is no longer a reason to record.
“I welcome any community insight or input about these or other police technologies or practices,” Kamerud said.
Body-worn cameras are a trend and an initiative that other departments are implementing, said Carver County Administrator Dave Hemze. Camera footage provides clear visual evidence which is good for both sides no matter what happened, he added.
So far, the initiative has been running smoothly. It’s about public trust and video evidence that includes audio helps to build that, Hemze said.
Support from the sheriff, county attorney and county board was important, said Hemze, who added he was proud of leadership across the organization in making the decision.
The Chaska Police Department implemented body-worn cameras as a pilot program in June 2018, according to Investigation Division & Support Services Commander Lt. Chris George.
The department received the cameras as a nationwide free trial through Axon, a company that supplies police body cameras.
The body-worn camera program was implemented long-term in June 2019 and will be used going forward, George said, in an email. Each officer and community service officer is issued a camera as part of their uniform.
The body-worn cameras integrate with the department’s in-car video systems. When an officer activates emergency lights in a squad car, the camera is automatically activated and begins recording. When an officer arms their Taser, any body-worn camera within Bluetooth range will activate and begin recording, George said.
Beside automatic activation, body-worn cameras are manually turned on by officers during every call for service and any other interaction an officer deems necessary, George said. The cameras are recording at all times in order to capture 30 seconds of retroactive activity from when an officer activates their camera, he added.
According to George, body-worn cameras have been useful in promoting transparency and accountability. The cameras have also been helpful to show what law enforcement experiences.
“Cameras provide a glimpse into what our officers face on a daily basis, outlining the dangers they face and the level of compassion they provide to those they come in to contact with,” George said.
The biggest challenges for the department came before the implementation of the body-worn camera program. There were many questions from the public and among the department’s staff regarding the dissemination of information and data collected on body-worn cameras, George said.
According to George, once the Minnesota Legislature provided guidance relating to data classification, it was easier to educate the public and staff members about the dissemination of data.
Carver County law enforcement isn’t alone in its move to body-worn cameras. The Minnesota State Patrol also recently unveiled a body camera program.
In an effort to increase transparency and accountability, the Minnesota State Patrol will outfit all troopers with body cameras by June 30, 2022. The initiative was funded by the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Tim Walz earlier this year.
Forty troopers will be amongst the first to wear body cameras on a full-time basis, according to a release from the state patrol. The cameras will be activated during any contact with citizens such as traffic stops or crash investigations.
This is the largest deployment of body-worn cameras in the state and will include approximately 645 troopers, in addition to capitol security officers and commercial vehicle inspectors.
In addition to the body-worn cameras, a new camera system will also be installed in every trooper’s squad in order for camera technology to be uniform and synched.
In 2020, troopers interacted 411,316 times with citizens, including 325,505 traffic stops and more than 30,000 crashes, according to the release.
The State Patrol’s general order for body camera operational procedures can be found at bit.ly/operationalprocedures.