Four Years Later, The Scars Remain

800px-Parkersburg_tornado

There is something to be said about finding positives in the face of udder catastrophe.  If ever there was an example of that, it would be Parkersburg, IA.  The tiny town in northern Iowa was known for one thing… football.  That is, until a cloudy Sunday Afternoon in 2008.

On the morning of May 25th, 2008, I was becoming less optimistic the potential was there for a chase.  Things just didn’t seem right.  But that afternoon I consulted with a colleague who was growing increasingly worried about the tornado potential in northeast Iowa.  I decided to call storm chaser Barry Hansen and hit the road.

Those first couple hours on the road seemed like any other chase, but what happened afterwards would be anything but normal.  As we came over a hill just south of New Hartford, we caught a glimpse of a small tornado and what appeared to be a large wall cloud just to our north.  Little did we know, that wall cloud was a large tornado on the ground.  For the next four hours we fought blocked, closed roads, downed lines and debris.  We saw the destruction in Dunkerton and Hazleton, but had no idea the scope of the devastation in Parkersburg.

800px-Parkersburg_tornado_damage2The city took a direct hit from the most powerful storm on the planet, an EF-5 tornado with winds of over 200mph.  What was left in its wake was a terrifying path of destruction, homes wiped clean off their foundations and several people missing.  In the first hours of the recovery process, the then Chief of Police said he was told to prepare for more than 100 bodies.  For anyone who saw what that tornado did to Parkersburg will tell you that was a fair and accurate estimate of what to expect.  But it’s not what happened.

Amazingly, just 7 people were killed in Parkersburg, it’s difficult when anyone is killed in a tornado, but for a death toll to be so low after such a terrible tornado, is nothing short of a miracle.  But miracles can have help.  And in this case it was extremely early warning that this was no ordinary tornado.  This was a monster and it was headed straight for Parkersburg.  Unfortunately, a phrase I will always remember from that night still rings true…. a basement just wasn’t going to save everyone.

I don’t know if this is true of other storm chasers, but for me there were thoughts of calling it a career after that storm.  The next time a storm threatened, I honestly had no idea how I would respond.  Ironically, our next chase two weeks later took me back to that same road, and by the homes wiped out by the tornado in New Hartford.  Seeing all of that should have scared me, and sickened me.  But it didn’t.  I think it was because although the devastation was total, the sight of people standing on that rubble, picking it up and hammering away at new structures reminded me.  There is a point to all of this, there is a point to chasing.  We can’t always save everyone, but we can do everything we can to save every life possible.

Parkersburg, New Hartford, Dunkerton…. they are scars that I will carry for the rest of my life, but they are scars that drive me to continue the chase… for years to come.

One Comment

  1. I am from Parkersburg and would like to thank you and other chasers for what you do to help warn people of severe weather. It was after the tornado that I met Ben McMillan and was introduced to storm chasing and how it helps the NWS with warnings. I was on the fire department and my wife was on the ambulance crew at that time and we heard many people afterwards talk about how they thought it was “just another warning” and nothing would become of it. People need to take the NWS warnings seriously, lives are lost every year because people get complacent and think nothing happened last time so nothing will happen this time. I just hope people learn from events like Greensburg, Parkersburg, and Joplin. It is an event we will remember for the rest of our lives.

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