July 22, 2009
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.

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.

Over the next minute, havoc rained down on the town. Members of the Parkersburg Fire Department had never seen anything of the inconceivable destruction they witnessed when firefighters with their trucks attempted to return to the station. First Assistant Chief Jeremiah Hook had remained home to stay with his family during the storm watch. After the tornado struck, he tried to get to the fire station, but had trouble getting there due to all the debris on the streets. "The town was a mess, I didn't know what we were going to do," Hook recalled.

Siems had gone south with the truck he drove away. He tried going through town to get back to the fire station, but there was so much debris on the streets that he turned around, went out of town and came back in from another direction. The Stout Fire Department, responding from six miles away, was on his heels and would be the first of 41 fire departments to respond the first night to assist. Stout had received the request for help through Grundy County dispatch following Siems' cell phone call.

When Siems did get back into town, he was met by one of his firefighters, who said there was a lot of damage and a lot of people trapped that they had to help. Siems made it back to the station and set up a staging area and command post. The initial command post was the tailgate of a grass rig. A joint command system quickly evolved into a unified command involving Wildeboer, Siems, Parkersburg Police Chief Chris Luhring and Butler County Sheriff Jason Johnson.

Command's initial actions were to start a search of houses for survivors and assign firefighters and fire departments as they arrived to houses to search. Maps of the city were kept in all Parkersburg emergency vehicles. Command used the maps for assigning firefighters and departments to structures and to mark locations that were searched. Responding fire departments began stopping at the station to get checked in and to get their orders for where they were to go and what they were to do to assist the search efforts. With landmarks and street signs wiped out, it was difficult to find assignment locations.

Butler County Emergency Management Coordinator Steve Ulrich was delayed, so when he arrived two hours after the tornado strike, other county EMA coordinators were already on-scene and had brought command trailers with them. Separate trailers were established for fire, law enforcement and EMS. Another staff person in Ulrich's office opened the Butler County Emergency Operations Center in the county seat of Allison, 12 miles away. The EOC would remain operational 24/7 for 20 days. Other county EMA coordinators from around the state assisted operations of the EOC and at the command post established at the Parkersburg Emergency Services Building.

Command for the disaster transcended to Johnson, the Butler County sheriff, also a Parkersburg resident. He sustained damage to his home, but did not lose it. When he arrived at the station, the command post was operating off of six tables set up in the emergency services building parking lot. "I would say that with what they had to deal with and what they had for resources, it was running pretty well," said Johnson. He then had to deal with the most dreaded task when the Parkersburg police chief handed him a piece of paper with the names of five fatalities that had been located so far. Expecting the number to climb, Police Chief Luhring set up a room at the fire station to be used as a morgue. One of the fatalities included Luhring's aunt. Fortunately, the morgue was never used as there were no more fatalities in Parkersburg.

Third Search Begins

By nightfall, rescuers had completed primary and secondary searches of the entire damage area, and they were starting a third search of the rubble remaining of homes and buildings for survivors.

"We ran out of daylight pretty quick and we needed to get things searched," said Johnson. "Cans of spray paint were an invaluable tool that we used to mark structures as we completed our searches. All during this time people would come up to us and identify themselves and what they had for resources; then we would assign them."

Nitcher, who arrived back in Parkersburg two hours after the tornado, came home to a drastically changed community.

"We came in from the north side of town which looked like nothing had happened. We kept going, then it was like wow, we tried to find where our house was and there was nothing there," said Nitcher.

With nightfall approaching and power out to the city, for safety and security reasons, unified command had the city evacuated.

"There was a good portion of the city that had structures still standing and the residents were there, but they had no gas, electricity or phone service," said Nitcher. "Due to safety reasons it wasn't a good situation for us to have all those people out roaming around in the night. Other law enforcement officers began arriving. We had them make several passes through the city asking people to leave, then a final pass telling them they had to leave."

The Aplington Middle School five miles away opened as a shelter for people who were displaced within the first hour of the tornado. The third search for survivors and casualties was completed within four hours of the tornado strike. Fire companies and the Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force 1 from the Cedar Rapids Fire Department continued to search for survivors and bodies through the night. Triage stations were established by Parkersburg EMS personnel at two locations, one at the command post and another near the Parkersburg High School. Over 20 ambulance services responded and transported about 70 people to area hospitals by the end of the final search. Injuries ranged from walking wounded to life-threatening injuries.

Salvage & Recovery

After search and rescue operations, the disaster then moved into what would become a prolonged salvage and recovery phase. With as many as 2,000 volunteers daily, including emergency services personnel and scores of equipment resources such as bulldozers, cranes, the National Guard, the Department of Transportation, telecommunicators, a large cadre of state and federal agencies, and a score of other resources inundating the city, additional disaster management expertise was necessary.

Within hours of the tornado's departure, a call was made to the Iowa Homeland Security Emergency Management Division requesting assistance from the state's Incident Management Team (IMT). Iowa's Type 3 Incident Management Teams, also known as the "Go Team," follow the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) model. The teams are managed at the state level and comprised of eight team members from multiple agencies/multiple jurisdictions. The teams are intended to be deployed as state resources in response to major, complex or extended incidents. The Parkersburg tornado was elevated to a Level 1 incident, the highest level attainable in the incident command model.

Merrill Meese, a regional coordinator with the Iowa Department of Public Health/Bureau of EMS, is one of three "Go Team" incident commanders (ICs). Meese was the first "Go Team" IC at Parkersburg. He was already in Parkersburg assessing the EMS response as part of his job.

"Once I knew our team was going to be activated it was my job to meet with the local IC to determine what they expected from the IMT, and to obtain any necessary information the team would need in order to prepare for deployment," said Meese. "Once the incoming IMT members arrived, I briefed them about their role and expectations. The IMT then received a tour of the disaster scene and integrated as requested into the current ICS structure."

Even with an IMT on the ground, local control was still maintained, as Johnson remained the overall IC for the disaster. Johnson developed a management philosophy that progress had to be established every day. His philosophy would prove to be integral to keeping the disaster response organization focused and attentive to community needs.

Johnson also understood that keeping people informed was paramount to a successful and orderly recovery. As he explained: "There was a rumor early on that the whole town was going to be bulldozed down. The way we squelched that was on Sunday morning we took a church service over and told the people, "This is a town hall meeting. This is what we've got and what we're doing and what we need you to do." Then we set up subsequent daily town hall meetings and began giving people more information. From the standpoint of making progress, this was key, because every day as soon as people got to the meeting they would tell you what they had done and ask you what they could do. These people weren't sitting around waiting for help, they were getting out there and making it happen. That daily progress was important so people knew that they weren't getting stifled and their next challenge wasn't going to be sitting there. We had answers for them so they could keep going forward and on to the next thing. This was huge, that progress just never stopped."

Managing Resources

As recovery operations ramped up, another issue that had to be dealt with was the huge outpouring of volunteers who were inundating the city. There were also differing levels of progress with cleanup operations at different structures.

"We knew right off the bat that managing all of the people from around the state, even from outside the state, who would be volunteering to help would be a challenge," Johnson recalled, adding: "The thing with volunteers is they have to have a place to go. Different houses were in different stages of progress. We came up with this staking procedure. We let property owners decide when they were done with their personal salvage efforts. They were given a stake (fence post) that they put all of their personal contact information on and drove it in front of their property. That information was given to the volunteer coordinators so when the volunteers got there to conduct debris removal and cleanup they could be assigned to a location."

Though it may seem with the barrage of people and resources pouring into town that Parkersburg firefighters and EMS personnel would fade into the background. Such was not the case. Parkersburg emergency services personnel maintained an operational response and presence in every aspect of disaster recovery operations, even though they were stressed beyond the max.

"By the third day, our people were shot," said Nitcher. "That's when the IMT started calling other departments in to staff our station and provide a response to incidents. One problem was we couldn't get guys to go home. For me personally, I knew I had a job to do, but I also wanted to be with my wife, so I was torn between the two things." Seven Parkersburg firefighters and five Parkersburg ambulance members, including Nitcher, lost their homes. Many others had significant damage to their homes. The call was put out for Iowa fire departments and EMS providers to provide staffing in 12-hour shifts for the Parkersburg firefighters and EMTs who needed rest and time to tend to personal issues. For nearly two weeks, the station was staffed by firefighters and EMTs from all across the state.

Daily operations for the IMT and the joint command center at Parkersburg began with a morning operational brief at 8 o'clock. During the day, the IMT oversaw the entire disaster recovery operation. IMT staff troubleshot problems, dispatched resources, ordered resources, oversaw press releases, monitored work activities, dealt with reestablishing city utilities, dealt with volunteer management, sheltering, feeding, fueling, staging areas, and debris management. At 5 P.M., a planning meeting was held. After the planning meeting, the IMT met with the IC, who set the next day's objectives. The IMT then wrote the objectives, developed the plan, assigned resources to the effort and then completed an Incident Action Plan (IAP). The next day, before the 8 A.M. meeting, the IMT reassembled to review the IAP with the IC and made adjustments given other events that occurred overnight and to receive further direction from the IC.

While events unfolded in Parkersburg, the New Hartford Fire Department and community residents were dealing with their own dose of devastation doled out by the same tornado. At the same time, New Hartford Fire Chief Brad Shipper was on storm watch and his department was paged to go help in Parkersburg, New Hartford weather spotters saw the tornado coming toward their city. Shipper blew the city's antiquated civil defense storm warning siren, but it failed. Shipper then ordered trucks out on storm watch to return to town and drive around alerting people of the approaching tornado with public address systems in the fire trucks. This did prove to be effective. He felt more people took cover in the city of 659 people because of this warning than the siren warning. Nearly 80 residences were affected in the New Hartford area by the tornado, mostly in a rural area three-fourths of a mile north of the city.

With so many resources diverted to Parkersburg and communications systems down, information about the situation in New Hartford did not get through channels quickly. The city would not receive as much assistance as quickly as Parkersburg did. Shipper did much the same as Siems had in the first minutes following the tornado strike and assigned different trucks and fire crews to different areas of the city in order to conduct damage assessments and rescue.

Two weeks later, on June 8, the city was hit by the worst flood in its history. The entire community was affected and evacuated. "We were still working the tornado disaster and then we had to jump into the flood disaster. Of 275 residences in the community, only 22 were not affected by either disaster. "We were operational basically for five weeks," said Shipper.

Lessons Learned

A disaster of this magnitude with so many personnel and organizations engaged brings with it many lessons learned. Nitcher, Siems, Ulrich and the "Go Team" ICs all relay many of the same observations:

  • Prepare to be overwhelmed. "Don't sit back and think you can handle this yourself. Use all of the resources you can get," advises Nitcher. Everyone who dealt with the disaster points to the IMT as being integral to helping them deal with the overwhelming incident and resource challenges they confronted. Their advice is to secure the assistance of an IMT early.
  • Surround yourself with good people and know how to delegate responsibility to them. Personnel are your number-one resource in any emergency situation. Nothing can replace having the right people in the right positions in a disaster-management situation.
  • Have operational procedures in place. The plan must take into account equipment as well as personnel resources. Some of the things taken for granted in day-to-day living and emergency operations are the things you may find unavailable and needing to be planned for. In Parkersburg, functions at the command post and with the IMT were initially crippled because of limitations on computers, printers, copiers and office supplies like copier paper.
  • Train and exercise in multi-disciplinary and multi-jurisdictional teams. Training and exercises develop relationships and trust among response agencies in advance of a disaster. Ulrich credits county-wide disaster exercises as crucial to operations during the Parkersburg disaster. In August 2007, there was an exercise that simulated a tornado strike on a Boy Scout camp. Fire, EMS and law enforcement personnel recognized that associations and acquaintances they had made from previous events and interactions were beneficial.
  • Communication is key. Communications needs and issues cover a plethora of elements involved in effective management of the disaster. Holding daily community briefings, developing multiple methods for dissemination of information, staying ahead of rumor control issues and establishing a joint information center were critical to successful disaster operations in Parkersburg. Calls regarding the disaster were routed to the EOC, not the county dispatch center. A "hotline" was established by the EOC and was made operational immediately following the disaster. A press release went out immediately giving the numbers — 9111, 9112, 9113, etc. Ulrich, who coordinated the EOC, says this is one of the lessons they learned from conducting exercises. Parkersburg emergency responders also found that their radios were overwhelmed and the cell phone system was locked up. However, one communications capability that did continue to work well was text messaging.
  • Strong leadership is essential. The establishment of a vision by Johnson, the incident commander, that progress must be made every day was crucial to providing the community hope, and keeping the thousands of volunteers who responded to assist with disaster recovery focused and on course.
  • Take ICS and NIMS training seriously. Frequently stated by Parkersburg emergency responders was how much they benefited from the ICS and NIMS training they had taken. As stated by Siems, "We can never use the excuse that that will never happen to us. ICS and NIMS isn't just something for big-city departments."

The hallmark of the response by Parkersburg emergency responders was that even though many of the responders had endured devastating losses, they put the needs of others before their own. It was difficult to get firefighters to give up their firefighting duties, even if they had lost their homes. "Chief Nitcher and Assistant Chief Siems, both of these guys lost their houses, yet they were there with me for hours. That's honor, that's impressive. It was absolutely unbelievable, the dedication of these guys," Johnson noted, adding that, "Firefighters came from all over, I can't thank them enough, they made an impossible job doable." Many members of the Parkersburg and New Hartford fire departments gave up a month or more of their time and being at their jobs to help with the disasters.

The Parkersburg Fire Department moved back into its restored fire station on Oct. 25, 2008. It would be easy to think that an event of this magnitude would stress a small community fire department to the point where it would suffer. Exactly the opposite happened. The department lost no members due to the disaster and its implications; in fact the department gained three new members. After having worked together for so many days under such stressful circumstances, Nitcher says, the department has actually became more close knit.

STEVE MEYER, a Firehouse® contributing editor, has been a member of the Garrison Volunteer Fire Department 27 years, serving as Chief since 1985. He also served as Acting Chief of the Cedar/Mt. Auburn Fire Department in 2006-2007. He is past-president of the Iowa Fire Chiefs Association, a graduate of the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program, and is a contract instructor for Leadership and Administration with the NFA. In 1998, he was presented with the State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year award.

The Enhanced F-Scale is a set of wind estimates (not measurements) based on damage.FUJITA SCALEDERIVED EF SCALEOPERATIONAL EF SCALEF Number Fastest 1/4-mile (mph) 3-Second Gust (mph) E Number 3-Second Gust (mph) EF Number 3-Second Gust (mph) Source: NOAA National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center 0 40-72 45-78 0 65-85 0 65-85 1 73-112 79-117 1 86-109 1 86-110 2 113-157 118-161 2 110-137 2 111-135 3 158-207 162-209 3 138-167 3 136-165 4 208-260 210-261 4 168-199 4 166-200 5 261-318 262-317 5 200-234 5 Over 200

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