Monthly Archives: June 2015

Parkersburg, USA: Healing Pains From An EF-5 Tornado

David Mitchell leaned back in his lounge chair on his deck on May 25, 2008, enjoying the spring evening with his wife and mother-in-law. The long-time seed broker in Parkersburg, Iowa watched the skies as clouds built to the west, as was typical in May. The sun was shining brightly otherwise, and not even a real thought about rain came to mind. “I saw the dark clouds in the distance, but that’s normal during the spring. Most times the showers are remote as they move across the plains and mostly miss us,” Mitchell said.

Just before 5 p.m. Mitchell and family continued their leisure discussion, when suddenly, the ominous dark clouds began making their way in to town. He grew concerned when the town tornado siren began to blare. “We weren’t listening to the TV or radio, so we didn’t get the warning at all. Before I knew it, the storm was coming straight at us. A wall of different colors swirled, and I knew it was a tornado.”

An EF 5 tornado approaching Parkersburg, Iowa

An EF 5 tornado approaching Parkersburg, Iowa

Mitchell yelled for his wife to run straight to the basement. His elderly mother-in-law couldn’t move fast enough, so he scooped her up in a fireman’s carry and ran in to the house and down to the basement. No sooner than they got down there, the tornado struck. “I wasn’t sure what was going on up there. All I knew was that the pressure seemed to change and the house was shaking. After the shaking stopped, I told my wife to stay put until I could figure out what had just happened,” recalls Mitchell. Mitchell climbed to the top of the steps, and was stunned. “There were trees protruding through my roof. I mean…trees. The back of my home was sheered off and looked like a doll house that you can see inside of from the rear but not from the front.”

Mitchell recalled the damage like it was just the day before. “The high school behind my home was all but destroyed. The light poles that lit the football field and were several feet in circumference were snapped off ten feet high. The fence was gone, and homes were leveled to their foundations. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing was real.”

Nobody immediately realized what strength the tornado was as they scrambled for cover, but they certainly surmised that it was high on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, or EF scale. It would later be revealed that the twister was a rare, EF 5 that leveled the southern part of Parkersburg. Many residents were caught by surprise, 7 of them perishing. The strength of the storm was determined by wind speed and damage. Typically, houses are removed from the foundation and swept away, and cars become airborne, 2-ton missiles. Bark is literally stripped from trees, or what’s left of them. An EF 5 meant that winds were in excess of 200 mph.

Remnants of south Parkersburg, Iowa after the EF 5 struck.

Remnants of south Parkersburg, Iowa after the EF 5 struck.

Mitchell made certain the coast was clear before giving the okay to come out of the basement. His mother-in-law was still groggy after the storm passed; she was knocked out cold when her head was struck on a door as Mitchell hurriedly carried her downstairs. “I didn’t even realize she was knocked out until after the storm went over us,” Mitchell said, shaking his head.

Residents went in to search and rescue mode, going to what was left of each and every home. Heaps of lumber, roofs, cars and other debris made it difficult to navigate, and the roads were impassable. Mitchell jumped in his Dodge truck to join the search, but not until having to saw a pole off that had gone through the roof of the cab and down through the floor board. “My house was just grazed. The back of the house was missing. But everything just yards away was gone. Everything. We had to move fast to get to the neighbors; we found some dead that I had known for years,” Mitchell explained. “It was utter chaos. We found one woman still sitting on the toilet, and the entire house around her was gone. She never even moved until we found her, traumatized.” Mitchell described a field where all of the grass was gone. “The tornado was so strong that the debris in it erased the grass like sand paper would old paint on wood.”

7 were killed in Parkersburg, as were 2 others in nearby New Hartford.  Some 75 others were injured. Storm chasers described to authorities the devastation they were witnessing, telling them to send every emergency personnel they had. Not long afterward, rescue from surrounding towns had arrived, not knowing where to start in the leveled part of town.

Ariel view of devastation in Parkersburg

Ariel view of devastation in Parkersburg

Parkersburg, a town of less than 2,000 residents, pulled together with authorities to sort through the mess, and after rescue efforts were over, the cleanup began. A contractor from nearby Aplington went to homes that were still standing to offer free plywood to cover holes in roofs, as the rain continued to pour over the next several days.

The high school, Aplington-Parkersburg High, was all but destroyed. Students from about 30 high schools in Iowa descended on the area to help with the school cleanup. “They got on their hands and knees, shoulder to shoulder, crawling from one end of the football field to the other with buckets picking up shards of glass, nails and other sharp objects,” Mitchell said. “They all pulled together without as much as being asked and helped wherever they could.”

The seventh anniversary of the 2008 tornado is next month, however the tragedy left little to the naked eye to spot. The contrast was stark compared to the day the tornado marched through that May evening and the present. There are many homes that were never rebuilt and is obvious by the newer and older homes that sit just across the streets from each other. The high school is good as new and those who chose to stay in Parkersburg defiantly built new homes.

“Follow me,” Mitchell waved.

He led us to a tree in the back yard, pointing upward.”That fender has been there since the tornado, and is a reminder of a nightmare many would otherwise like to forget.”

A car fender wrapped around Mitchell's tree

A car fender wrapped around Mitchell’s tree