BLOWN AWAY

On Sunday, May 25, 2008, at 4:59 P.M., Parkersburg, IA, a city of 1,889, was struck head on by an EF5 tornado. An EF5 tornado is the worst kind. A tornado of this magnitude generates winds greater than 200 mph and is capable of doing incredible damage...


On Sunday, May 25, 2008, at 4:59 P.M., Parkersburg, IA, a city of 1,889, was struck head on by an EF5 tornado. An EF5 tornado is the worst kind. A tornado of this magnitude generates winds greater than 200 mph and is capable of doing incredible damage. Strong frame houses disintegrate or are...


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On Sunday, May 25, 2008, at 4:59 P.M., Parkersburg, IA, a city of 1,889, was struck head on by an EF5 tornado. An EF5 tornado is the worst kind. A tornado of this magnitude generates winds greater than 200 mph and is capable of doing incredible damage. Strong frame houses disintegrate or are lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances; cars fly like missiles through the air; trees are debarked and other incredible phenomena occur.

After striking Parkersburg, the tornado went on to inflict damage on New Hartford, eight miles to the east, then skipped across the state, causing damage in Dunkerton and Hazleton before blowing itself out two counties and 43 miles away.

The Parkersburg tornado left 290 of Parkersburg's 576 homes destroyed and another 120 damaged. Twenty-two businesses were destroyed; the Aplington-Parkersburg High School and Parkersburg City Hall was destroyed. The new $1 million Parkersburg Emergency Services Building, in use for only nine months, sustained $590,000 in damage. A total dollar amount of damage to the city has not been determined, but it is in the tens, if not hundreds of millions.

According to Major Leonard (Len) Murray, commander of the Homeland Security Bureau for the Des Moines Police Department, the destruction in Parkersburg was reminiscent of what he witnessed at the World Trade Center. Murray responded to the Parkersburg disaster as incident commander of the "Red" Team of Iowa's Incident Management Team (IMT). The team was among thousands of people and emergency responder organizations who began filtering into Parkersburg within minutes of the tornado strike.

First Responders Confront Devastation

The first emergency responders to confront the devastation left in the path of the tornado was the Parkersburg Fire Department, a 35-member, all-volunteer department that responds to 30 incidents a year with one pumper, two tankers, a rescue truck and three grass fire rigs. The department is trained in all Firefighter I, National Incident Management System (NIMS), Incident Command System (ICS) and Hazardous Materials Operations requirements. Also responding immediately was the Parkersburg Ambulance Service, a 20-member, all-volunteer service that responds to 160 calls for service annually.

On that fateful Sunday, Parkersburg firefighters and other storm spotters from Butler and Grundy counties had been called out on storm watch as National Weather Service and local meteorologists monitored widespread threatening weather advancing from west to east across Iowa. Parkersburg Mayor Robert Haylock and Fire Chief Buck Nitcher were out of town. Second Assistant Fire Chief Ryan Siems was at the station commanding the storm watch and had sent two trucks with firefighters out to watch for threatening weather. He had kept some firefighters at the station. Aplington firefighters on storm watch five miles to the west saw the tornado on the ground and radioed Parkersburg firefighters, telling them to get ready because it was coming their way. Siems received the warning.

Only two days before the tornado struck, a new system for activating the community storm warning siren that worked through new radios had been installed in Parkersburg fire trucks. Firefighter Todd Miller used the new system to activate the community storm warning siren while also ordering firefighters who were at the station to grab their gear, get the trucks out of the station and drive them away from Parkersburg. Siems drove one of the trucks himself. As he was leaving town, he was on the radio calling Butler County dispatch, informing the agency that Parkersburg was in the path of a tornado and help would be needed. He also made a call by cell phone to Grundy County dispatch, the next nearest county, requesting more assistance.

"Town Was a Mess"

Todd Wildeboer, a Parkersburg EMS crew member, was at his home in the country a short distance south of the Parkersburg fire station. He had his TV on and heard a weather warning of a tornado spotted west of Parkersburg. He summoned his family to the basement of their home. On his way to the basement, he glanced out the window and could see the tornado on the edge of town.

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