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Iowa After the Parkersburg Tornado

posted on May 30, 2008 at 10:23 AM


Iowans, as well as other who live in tornado country, expect funnel clouds to appear on occasion. But the frequency of such storms this year is trending well outside the norm.

Not only have the tornadoes been more frequent, the ferocity of the storms has been greater.

The twister that ripped apart Parkersburg featured winds speeds in excess of 200 miles an hour. The trauma left in the wake is still apparent and twofold. There is the obvious physical destruction, and there is the more subtle, but just as devastating, emotional toll.

From all appearances Mother Nature took a weed eater to the south side of Parkersburg Sunday afternoon. The town was cut in half, the north side virtually untouched, but the south for almost a mile looks straight off of a movie set. Hollywood couldn't make tornado damage look this real, much less capture the pain it has afflicted upon the people of Parkersburg.

So many friends and family are moving beyond grief and into the recovery and rebuilding mode. The sifting is long done, heavy machinery are now picking up the piles and leaving just foundations behind for rebuilding. Block after block is gone, hundreds of homes. Highway 14 is the south side's main drag. New businesses, homes and development had popped up over the last few years, all gone. Now the town will have to build again.

Grief counselors are some of the many volunteers who walk the streets. Some talk, others mostly listen, hearing where each person was when the tornado hit. Those who deal with disaster relief say the best way to help the community cope with the loss is to start rebuilding.

Carla Janssen: They're very, very busy and aren't taking time to either take care of themselves or to tell the story and so if we can be there to help them tell the story, to help kind of process some of those emotions. We know that the sooner that we can help them to tell the story the sooner that they do, that they share it, the less likely they will suffer from post-traumatic stress symptoms later on.

Colonies of workers descend on each part of town, some shingle a roof, power crews try to bring electricity back into town and cars destroyed are sent to their own grave site. At the core of the community's psyche is Aplington Parkersburg High School. It too is roped off. The perimeter defined by little yellow tape can't keep the destruction from view. Classroom walls were gone on the south side, the north half of the same room books remain on the shelves, the clock stopped just before 5:00 when the storm hit.

John Thompson: There is a strong connection between the two communities. Sports and football was probably the place where we first made that connection the strongest. They used to be rivals and then we became teammates, so to speak, and now the school is one and that is a fantastic thing. Now the school itself is a rallying point I know for kids. The first place they went to then after that a lot of them was the school and especially if they were unaffected at their homes, they were up here at the school to try to help out. So, the school is their focal point and as they look to their senior year if they were juniors and their high school experiences of course they're going to want to help out and also find out what is in store for them.

The gym and stage have no roof along with almost the entire school. Voters in the school district recently passed a bond referendum for a new auditorium. The same voters who approved the vote with 70% approval are those who will again unanimously rally for a new high school and athletic field. The superintendent just two years on the job is leaning on the man he replaced for guidance along with members of the school board, two of whom lost their own homes in the tornado.

John Thompson: But he never talked to me about tornadoes and he never talked to me about seven snow days and some of those things that we had this year. So, he's still a big help, though, and so that's one person I lean upon. When you've been in the community for sixteen years you develop a lot of friendships, a lot of bonds and every time I see people now I think that bond and that friendship is probably growing even stronger and that's one thing I think that I'm going to find out through this whole experience whether they're a junior in high school or they're a 45 year old man I think we're going to have a stronger community feeling after we regroup and rebuild. I'm counting on that.

The football field, a long-time rallying point for the two towns joined together nearly 20 years ago, will again become the focus for the town. Four NFL players learned the game from Ed Thomas. The 32-year head coach of the Falcons lost his own house, leaving the high school just five minutes before the storm hit. Now he's trying to get softball and baseball teams a place to play. The school is planning to bring students and teachers back for one day to wrap up the school year. It's an important act of closure that will open a new chapter in the school's history and be a catalyst for the community's renewal.

 

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