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'Everything's gone': Bluffton family begins the process of starting

Sue and Tim Volkman's farmhouse in Bluffton was hit hard by a tornado on Thursday. Many family members and friends have offered their time and equipment to help the Volkmans clean up the aftermath. Chris Franz / The Forum

Sue and Tim Volkman rushed home from their daughters' volleyball tournament Thursday to find little home actually left. A tornado that raged through the area late Thursday afternoon left their farm about a mile north of here in shambles.

"We had been told everything was gone," Sue Volkman said. "You don't realize what 'gone' means."

Sue, who is the head volleyball coach at Wadena-Deer Creak High School, Tim and their three daughters were at a Journey Olympic volleyball tournament in Bemidji when a worker looking over their farm called to tell them about the storm.

"I got the call, and I basically thought he was full of crap, but after the third time, I realized he was serious," Tim Volkman said. "He said, 'You better get home. Everything's gone.' "

By the time the family arrived at their 1,000-acre farm, where they've raised dairy cattle for local farmers since 1995, neighbors and the Bluffton Fire Department had already cleared a path to their house. Debris and broken trees lined the driveway where giant pine trees stood when the family left that morning. The outside walls of their split-level house were gone, as were their two dogs.

"I don't remember my first reaction," said Courtney Volkman, one of Tim and Sue's daughters, who will graduate from WDCHS next year. "I was just shocked. It was unbelievable."

Tim said before he saw the house, a friend had warned him that it was "the worst damage he'd ever seen" from a natural disaster.

"We spent a lot of time looking for a couple of dogs and valuable papers," Tim said. "I was out with a flashlight until midnight."

They pulled one dog out of the rubble Thursday night, but it died a half-hour later. It wasn't until Friday that someone spotted the other, Courtney's Christmas present two years ago, popping its head up in a pasture.

When daylight came Friday, Sue said, the reality of the situation "really kind of hit."

On a farm with 400 animals, the Volkmans were forced to euthanize 12 cows that had been hit with debris behind their barn. Fortunately, the rest of the cattle were grazing in other pastures, and there was minimal damage to their crops.

Friends and strangers alike filled the Volkmans' yard Friday and Saturday with heavy equipment, clearing out much of the debris.

"It's amazing what's been accomplished," Sue said. "People came out here yesterday with chain saws, and we didn't know a lot of them. They were friends of friends of friends.

"The stuff they did without asking ... they just did it," she added, gazing around her farm where a dozen people, down from the larger crowds that gathered Friday, continued working around uprooted willow and oak trees that used to frame the family's house.

With their farm almost completely destroyed, the Volkmans said they are unsure whether they'll try to rebuild their lifelong home.

"When they're done cleaning up here, there's not going to be anything left," Tim said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Emily Hartley at (701) 235-7311