LOOKING BACK: The Final Moments Before Catastrophe

2159zRefPburg Yesterday we looked at the setup in the days and hours before a major tornado outbreak unfolded over northeast Iowa nearly two years ago.  Today we look at the final moments before a catastrophic tornado barreled through the town of Parkersburg.

On May 25th, 2008, forecasters had issued a PDS Tornado Watch.  PDS Stands for Particularly Dangerous Situation.  That phrase would come true in a matter of minutes.  Along with chase partner Barry Hansen, we made our way north towards the storms, carefully determining which developing storm we should track.  At first we decided to stay south of the growing line.  Our thinking was since the storms continue to develop to the southwest we would wait for the next storm to develop.

But that didn’t happen.  While pulled over for a quick break, I noticed something unusual.  Winds were increasing dramatically out of the southeast.  At first I thought this was the ongoing wind shift from the warm front that passed earlier in the day.  But we quickly realized that the wind was inflow, winds fueling a developing supercell.

We began the race to the north, slowly realizing the storm we were trying to intercept was moving east rather than northeast.  This is a classic example of a storm “turning right",” and a great indicator that it’s capable of producing a tornado.

At 4:48pm, that threat became reality.  The tornado made its initial touchdown just south of the town of Aplington.  Storm chaser Ben McMillan was there when the tornado formed.  The storm continued to intensify as the swirling vortex began collecting debris. The video to the right is an interview Ben did with ABC News’ 20/20 where he discussed those first moments of the tornado.

In just 12 minutes, the powerful tornado would strike the town of Parkersburg.  Less than 2,000 people call the town home.  Best known for it’s high school football success, many in Parkersburg were just wrapping up their Sunday evening plans when the sky darkened.

The good news was tornado warnings were posted for the area long before the storm hit and there were already confirmations that a tornado was bearing down on the tiny town.  The sirens sounded and the people ran for shelter.

At 5:00pm, the tornado entered town.  A moment that the outside world would not learn until a short time later.  At that time all viewers knew was there was a report of a large tornado near Parkersburg.  But there was no way of telling the storm had already struck the community.

As the first reports came in, on air coverage of the storm grew in intensity.  Forecasters often cover tornado warnings that never produce funnels.  But this was different.  This was not only a tornado on the ground, but a large tornado capable of producing devastating destruction.  But unknown at the time to those in the media, the damage was already being done.

Tomorrow we’ll look at what happened in the town of Parkersburg as the storm hit.  We’ll also recap where the tornado traveled next and show you the pictures we captured as the tornado reached its second victim… New Hartford.

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