116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
PARKERSBURG - Angie Reifenrath remembers clearly the day she and her husband, Marc, huddled in the basement of their Parkersburg home as one of the largest tornadoes in state history roared above.
Yet it's difficult to find the right words to describe the events of May 25, 2008, when an EF5 tornado destroyed more than 300 buildings, killed nine people and sent at least 70 more to the hospital, she said.
'It's something that I have never experienced again and I pray I never will. There's not a lot you can compare it to,” she said. 'This is such an overly used term for tornadoes, but there's no other word for it - leveled. The town was literally planed out.”
Like many of the roughly 1,000 people displaced by the tornado's approximately 2-minute path through Parkersburg, the Reifenraths climbed out of the debris strewn by the tornado that destroyed more than a third of the town.
Now 10 years later, there's little physical evidence of the tornado that ripped through Parkersburg. But some scars persist if you know where to look.
One of the three metal crosses atop the Parkersburg United Methodist Church remains bent askew from the more than 200 mph winds. A clock that stopped at 4:56 - when the tornado knocked out power to the community of about 1,800 residents - is on display at the Aplington-Parkersburg High School. All the trees in the southern third of town, which replaced those uprooted by the storm, still are saplings compared with the full-grown trees that line the community's northern streets.
But the most prevalent effects the tornado had on Parkersburg are invisible, said Jon Thompson, superintendent of the Aplington-Parkersburg school district.
'Scars sometimes can be emotional, too,” Thompson said. 'When a storm rolls in, we watch the sky maybe a little more than we did 11 years ago or so.”
But the residents of Parkersburg did not let one of the most devastating tornadoes in Iowa history beat them. In the hours, days and weeks that followed, the residents didn't just rebuild, they did so with aggressive determination.
'If anyone predicted Parkersburg's demise or that a tornado would shut us down, they were wrong,” said Parkersburg City Administrator Chris Luhring, who was police chief in 2008. 'This was our hometown, these families that were destroyed and devastated were our families. The friends here were our friends. It was all personal.”
For Marc and Angie Reifenrath, May 25, 2008, began as just another lazy Sunday before Memorial Day.
With their house positioned at one of the highest points in town, the Reifenraths watched as a midafternoon storm approached from the west.
'We saw a very large, ominous dark cloud, but you see a lot of those in Iowa,” Marc recalled.
But as clouds neared, it became apparent this was more than another spring thunderstorm.
'It was so big and dark that it didn't look like a tornado,” Marc said.
What approached was the first EF5 tornado - a tornado with speeds in excess of 200 mph - the state had seen since 1976. It was nearly three-quarters of a mile wide.
Huddling in the basement with the family dog, Belle, the Reifenraths were helpless as the storm raged above them, swallowing up the home they moved into just months before.
'What they say about sounding like a jet engine, a train. I mean, yes, all of those things but more and worse,” Marc said.
In less than a minute, the storm moved on, but everything from the subfloor up in the Reifenraths' home was gone.
The tornado passed over the southern third of Parkersburg just before 5 p.m., destroying 282 homes, 22 businesses and 37 assisted living residences, according to the city.
Thompson, who lived in neighboring Aplington, drove to Parkersburg that night to help those in need.
'It was just like a line in the ground … you had total destruction to where there was very little destruction right in the same small town. Where it hit, it hit hard,” Thompson said.
The storm continued more than 40 miles east and moved just north of New Hartford and eventually ended near the Black Hawk and Buchanan County line.
Nine lives - seven in Parkersburg - were lost in the storm and at least another 70 people were transported to the hospital with injuries.
'It was a complete annihilation of the typography, of the structures. Structures that had existed in Parkersburg for 50 or 80 or 100 years had disappeared,” Luhring said. 'That is a level of destruction that is hard to explain.”
Signs of normal
Following the initial search-and-recovery efforts, the focus shifted to clean up and rebuilding.
With the community on a mission to return to the way things were before the storm, little moments signifying a return to normalcy provided comfort and inspiration.
Thompson couldn't tell you what day the power was restored, but said he'll never forget seeing streetlights once again illuminating the community.
'The first time I drove back toward Parkersburg at night and I saw lights, it was comforting,” he said.
For Luhring, a simple garage erected just six days after the tornado marked the city's first rebuilding project.
'It's just a two-stall garage, but I love that garage to this day,” Luhring said. 'That garage was hope. That garage was, ‘I got to get my crap together, because that guy is building a garage.'”
The Reifenraths decided pretty quickly they would rebuild their home, which was just months old before it was destroyed.
The new home was built as close to the original as possible - but with the addition of a storm shelter.
'For us, we had just picked these things so we wanted it back just the way it had been,” Angie said. 'It was very quick that we decided to put Humpty Dumpty back together and give it a second go.”
One of the town's most aggressive goals, which was championed by community officials including Ed Thomas, Aplington-Parkersburg High School football coach and athletics director, was to play the high school's first home football game on a rebuilt field later that year and have students in a new school by the fall 2009 semester.
About 100 days after the tornado, Aplington-Parkersburg took the field for its first home game of the season.
The following year, while Thomas was not there to see it - he was shot and killed on June 24, 2009 - students returned to a new high school a little over a year after the tornado. The new school included the addition of an emergency shelter in the basement.
'That first home game, it was very emotional. It was for a lot of people,” Marc Reifenrath recalled. 'I remember crying when they ran out and I couldn't explain why. It was kind of an emotional release of the previous couple of months and all that had happened.”
The city also set about building Miracle Park. Volunteer crews, including students, pitched in. Community fundraising efforts brought in $250,000, which was matched with a grant from the Miracle Recreation Equipment Co.
Now 10 years later, the Parkersburg population has grown to an estimated 1,950 people, according to Census calculations. The school district has increased from 775 students in 2008 to 825 now, Thompson said.
'For Aplington-Parkersburg, an increase of 50 students over 10 years is a real positive, it's a real sign of economic growth for the communities,” Thompson said.
Luhring added that level of success does not come without help. He said the number of unsung heroes both from Parkersburg and nearby communities, as well as from across the state and beyond, was too many to list.
'Really, it's the people that never got thank you's that worked behind the scenes. Those are the people that really got the job done,” he said. 'It took crazy goals to be accomplished to get people here to really realize, that we're going to do this thing. We're going to beat this thing ... and we've accomplished that.”
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