Deadly Iowa Tornado Rated State’s Strongest in 32 Years

May 29, 2008

A tornado that leveled half a town in northeast Iowa and killed seven people was the strongest to hit the state in 32 years, the National Weather Service said on May 27.

The twister, three-quarters of a mile wide with winds of up to 205 mph, tore a path through Parkersburg and nearby towns. The weather service ranked it an EF5, at the top of its scale.

“You just don’t see many of these around,” said Steve Teachout, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Johnston. “There was nothing to hold that storm down. It just blew up.”

The tornado was the worst in the United States since May 4, 2007, when an EF5 twister flattened Greensburg, Kan., killing 11 people with winds up to 205 mph. The storm spanned more than a mile and a half.

Iowa’s last EF5 tornado was June 13, 1976, in the central Iowa town of Jordan. No one was killed, a rarity for storms of that magnitude, Teachout said.

“When you’re talking about that strong a tornado, there’s not a lot of structures that will save people,” Teachout said. “Really, the only thing left of a house is the foundation.”

Residents of Parkersburg, New Hartford and Dunkerton discovered that the hard way. An estimated 350 homes were destroyed on May 25 and another 100 received major damage, Gov. Chet Culver said.

The death toll went up by one on May 27 to seven, ranking it the second-deadliest Class 5 tornado in Iowa since 1950, according to statistics from the National Weather Service. The deadliest twister hit the Charles City area on May 15, 1968, killing 13 people and injuring 462.

The death toll could have been much worse. Holly Fokkena, a Butler County spokeswoman, said a siren was installed about 10 days ago in southeastern Parkersburg, the area worst hit by the tornado. She said the siren saved many lives because residents were given proper warning of the tornado.

“That was very fortuitous it was just installed,” she said, noting that sirens on the other side of town sometimes aren’t audible from southeastern Parkersburg.

The announcement that a seventh person died in a hospital Monday came as President Bush and Culver issued disaster declarations that will mean more help to residents struggling to rebuild their lives.

About 50 people were injured by the tornado that plowed through the Butler County communities of Parkersburg and New Hartford, then touched down to the east in Dunkerton. One injured person remains in critical condition.

Culver called Bush’s declaration Tuesday of Butler County as a federal disaster area “a major step in terms of assistance.” Culver also had issued disaster proclamations for Butler, Black Hawk, Buchanan and Delaware counties.

Under both state and federal disaster programs, people with incomes of 130 percent of the federal poverty level or less can apply for grants. There also are a variety of low-interest loans and other aid programs for residents and businesses.

The programs provide direct assistance for damage to public businesses, such as schools. The high school was destroyed in Parkersburg, and Culver said the state would seek help from such programs to aid in the reconstruction effort.

Dick Hainje, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it wasn’t clear if FEMA would provide mobile homes as temporary residences for victims, but he noted that rental assistance is preferred if the rental housing is available.

Disaster recovery centers will be opened this week to offer a centralized spot where victims can apply for state and federal assistance help, said Dave Miller, administrator of Iowa Homeland Security. State Insurance Department officials also will be sent to the region to offer aid.

Culver said he would continue a curfew in Parkersburg for safety reasons and to allow residents to sort through the debris.

“We want to give families time to sort through their belongings privately so they can figure out what they can keep and what needs to be destroyed,” Culver said. “That’s going to take some time and we want to be respectful of the families here involved in that difficult process.”

Culver said 52 Iowa State Patrol troopers have been dispatched to the area, and 165 National Guard troops would be on site by the end of Tuesday.

“They’ll be helping in terms of debris removal, public safety and traffic control,” Culver said.

In addition to the tornado damage, Buchanan County suffered extensive flood damage from area rivers. In Lamont, 240 of the town’s 280 homes were damaged by flooding, Culver said.

To deal with drinking water shortages in Parkersburg, the National Guard will bring in 10,000-gallon tankers, and the town’s water system has been restored for fire protection services, Miller said. Utility officials are working to restore power to portions of Parkersburg.

Culver urged residents to get tetanus shots as they were searching through debris. He said officials were working on temporary storage sites to handle any belongings that were recovered.

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