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'You can't imagine this kind of devastation'

A deadly tornado roars through an Iowa town that had seen its economic fortunes improving.

May 27, 2008|Jay Christensen and P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writers

PARKERSBURG, IOWA — In a place where a man's fortune often depends on which way the wind blows, Parkersburg was enjoying a time of bounty. Farmers across the region, flush from a nation hungry for corn-based ethanol, had splurged on new tractors and sporty trucks for the first time in years.

Along the main thoroughfare, business was brisk. Civic leaders routinely boasted about how -- in a state without a professional football team -- this hamlet of fewer than 2,000 people had turned out four NFL players over the last two decades.

Such good times in a state that has seen its economy roller coaster and its population dwindle in recent decades made Sunday's deadly storms all the more painful.

The tornado that ripped through this blue-collar agricultural town -- destroying at least a third of Parkersburg and killing four people -- was nearly a mile wide in spots and cut a path almost 50 miles long. National Weather Service officials said early estimates indicated the tornado might have traveled on the ground for as long as an hour.

Two more people were killed in nearby New Hartford, about nine miles to the east. And at least 65 people were injured when the tornado barreled across freshly planted fields in this eastern portion of the state, about 80 miles northeast of Des Moines.

"You really are overwhelmed when you see it," said Iowa Gov. Chet Culver at a news conference Monday. "You can't imagine this kind of devastation, homes completely gone."

The search for the injured and the dead stretched into the early morning hours Monday as emergency vehicles raced across debris-littered roads. At least two of those killed in Parkersburg had been huddled inside their basements, city officials said.

"We get tornadoes here, but it has been years and years since we've seen anything close to being this bad," said Rod Donavon, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Des Moines. "The sirens went off. People sought shelter. And they still died."

The storm system was believed to have been at least a 3 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which estimates the strength of tornadoes from 0 to 5. A level 3 means the winds were between 136 mph and 165 mph.

After the tornado hit about 5 p.m. Sunday, Jason Johnson and his wife, Barb, crawled out of the basement and gazed upon miles of overturned trucks and houses blown off their foundations.

Their house was destroyed.

Johnson's parents had recently sold their home in nearby Waverly, and were expecting to move next week -- to a place just down the block from their son.

That house also was demolished.

"None of us has a place to go after Friday," said Jason Johnson, 39. "I'd like to find my wife's wedding ring. That would make my day. I found mine this morning in the backyard."

On Monday, Mayor Robert Haylock had to duck under downed power lines as he focused on Parkersburg's other immediate problems: clean water, steady phone service and housing hundreds of residents in a town that had lost 21 businesses and more than 200 homes.

Some of those homes were on the town's south side, part of a new subdivision near a nine-hole golf course tucked in the middle of farm country. They're all gone. Debris was scattered across fields, and chunks of rebar and siding had pierced the trunks of wind-stripped trees.

Haylock, who has served on the City Council since 1973, was out of town when the storm hit. He arrived about 10 minutes after it passed.

Parkersburg's lone grocery store was in ruins, as was the only gas station. The same was true of City Hall, along with government records and historical documents that date to the 1800s.

Just last month, Parkersburg had passed a multimillion-dollar bond measure so the school district could build a fine arts auditorium for concerts and community plays.

It was another sign, Haylock said, of how Parkersburg "was growing and the economy was good."

Aplington-Parkersburg High School now has no roof, no windows and few standing brick walls. The gymnasium, where at least 1,000 people gathered for graduation last week, was a mangled pile of crumbled brick, shredded roofing tiles and sodden paper.

On the football field, a goal post was twisted and broken, as were the aluminum bleachers. Much of the high school's memorabilia honoring the Falcons' proud football past was either missing or buried beneath piles of debris that, in some places, were nearly two stories high.

Dozens of parents and teachers spent Monday digging through the rubble for reminders of local heroes such as the Denver Broncos' Casey Wiegmann and the Green Bay Packers' Aaron Kampman -- who have returned home over the summers to work out in the weight room and inspire young players with stories of life in the NFL.

Their high school football coach, Ed Thomas, was busy Monday answering frantic calls from out-of-town family and former students -- and trying to dig a few mementos from the wreckage of his home.

Nearly everyone he knows was affected by the storm. Wiegmann's father still lives in town. A tree hit his house, Thomas said.

Kampman raced from Kansas City, Mo., to get back Monday. His grandfather was one of the people injured in the storm, Thomas said.

"We'll put this town back together," said Thomas, who has lived in Parkersburg for 33 years. "We're going to rebuild and stay here, coaching and teaching. God give me help."

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jay.christensen@latimes.com

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

--

Christensen reported from Parkersburg and Huffstutter from Chicago.

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