IOWA DERECHO 2020

Parkersburg tornado survivors offer hope after derecho turmoil

They know firsthand the importance of paying it forward

Chris Luhring, city administrator of Parkersburg, stands beside a bench outside City Hall commemorating residents killed
Chris Luhring, city administrator of Parkersburg, stands beside a bench outside City Hall commemorating residents killed in a May 25, 2008, tornado, including his aunt, Shirley Luhring. Seven Parkersburg residents were killed and two in rural New Hartford. Luhring was the city’s police chief at the time of the tornado. (Pat Kinney/IowaWatch)
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PARKERSBURG — For 25 years, disasters have beckoned Chris Luhring to help.

On Aug. 10, he was called again — to respond to the kind of devastation he endured 12 years earlier and to provide hope and courage amid the darkness and despair delivered by a savage derecho.

Luhring, the city administrator of Parkersburg, was preparing for an afternoon meeting that day when he received a call from his sister in Hiawatha.

When he heard his sister’s voice — not only what she said, but the emotion behind it — he knew he wasn’t going to that meeting.

He was going to Hiawatha. To help, to deliver a message of survival.

Fierce hurricane-force straight-line winds had cut a 100-mile-wide swath of destruction — including in his sister’s community and Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

His response: instant, perhaps instinctive. The events of May 25, 2008, had prepared him for days like Aug. 10, 2020.

Luhring, still an emergency first responder, was serving as Parkersburg’s police chief on May 25, 2008, when an EF-5 tornado swept through the southern part of his community and across neighboring Butler and northern Black Hawk counties.

The twister killed nine people and injured 70. He and others in his community and beyond bonded and rebuilt the town. The wounds healed, scarred over for those who lived through the storm and its aftermath.

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Among the nine killed was Luhring’s aunt. He also had lost a cousin during an earlier storm cleanup — killed by a fallen tree — in 2003 in Grundy Center.

When Luhring, a father of seven, and his wife headed for Hiawatha, with the family Aug. 10, they saw destruction perhaps as devastating and much more widespread than the Parkersburg tornado.

Mental health needs

Professional journals, ranging from Scientific American to Psychology Today, cite studies that show that 25 to 30 percent of people who endure natural disasters display some form of post-traumatic stress, ranging from ongoing anxiety to physical illness. They say that survivors of these events shouldn’t be afraid to seek counseling and support when those symptoms surface.

That includes first responders — firefighters, police, soldiers, medical professionals and others who are rescuers and healers in such disasters.

While survivors of the Parkersburg tornado have “weathered the storm,” Luhring said, residual stress can be triggered by certain images or recollections.

Counselors suggest pro-active steps can be taken now for those dealing with the current twin stresses of the derecho and coronavirus.

For example, one counseling agency, Marion-based Covenant Family Solutions, which was already geared up for counseling associated with the coronavirus, is now offering free 30-minute mental health coaching sessions to those impacted by the derecho.

“Doing things like that are really important in terms of just having immediate access to care following something as traumatic as the derecho,” said Anna Patty, marketing and communications director for Covenant Family Solutions, founded in 2013 with offices also in Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls and Coralville.

Luhring said mind-set matters as well. “It depends on what lens you look through, too. If I wanted to have a ‘downer’ lens, if I wanted to have a negative lens, it would be real easy to find negative things. But I’m looking for positivity.”

He imparted that to his family when headed to Hiawatha.

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“So one of the things we talked about was, ‘We’re going down to help your aunt. The good Lord’s blessed us with skid loaders and chain saws, and the ability to use them.’ We talked about how much we’re going to be able to do to help her in a short period of time, because there’s so many hands and so many people working cooperatively. And we did. I’ll tell you, we did about three days’ worth of work in about six or seven hours.”

Other relatives and friends pitched in.

“If you want to focus on negative, it’s easy to find. If you focus on the positive, that’s easy to find, too,” Luhring said. “One of the things we talked about when we went down there was, look at all these people who are coming to help. And we talked about all the people who came to Parkersburg to help. This is our opportunity now to pay it forward.

“Parkersburg will never forget, and never forget to be thankful,” he said. “If it weren’t for every single person that came to help — 30,000 to 50,000 people — it would have never been possible for us to recover.”

Helpers appear

Dennis Magee of Dunkerton felt the call to pay it forward.

On Aug. 10 he headed down bottlenecked Interstate 380 to Fairfax to help in-laws. After all, they had been there for him when his own house was destroyed by the May 2008 tornado.

Magee, who was regional editor for the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, was headed May 25, 2008, to Parkersburg and New Hartford to cover storm damage. Magee and his family soon became part of the story.

The storm veered straight for his home north of Dunkerton. His wife, Julie, and their family, having previously lived in Decatur, Ill., part of “Tornado Alley,” knew what to do and took refuge in the basement as the twister hit.

Julie Magee called first, as the family emerged from the basement, to tell him of substantial damage to the house. She called again, more anxiety in her voice, when she explored further and found the roof gone; the top of the house fallen to one side.

Dennis Magee turned around and headed back for home.

The shorn tree line he saw now as he headed south on I-380 to help his in-laws in Fairfax looked similar to the countryside around his home 12 years ago.

Eventually, the Magees rebuilt. Like Luhring, they count their blessings.

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“I don’t look back on it as a bad experience,” Dennis Magee said. “Ultimately we made out OK financially,” replacing a farmhouse they were remodeling with a new geothermal home. “Beyond that, we had almost 100 people show up the next day to help. And we didn’t call one. They just turned out. Other than my brother-in-law, I did not call anybody for help.”

Time for hope

Herman Luhring counts his blessings despite the trauma he carries to this day.

Luhring, now 87, is Chris Luhring’s uncle. Herman’s wife, Shirley, died in the 2008 tornado.

Herman and his wife took shelter downstairs when the twister hit. It picked up the house and carried it away.

“We were in a split foyer house. We went in the shower stall down there. Pretty much everything was out of the basement, except they found us with our arms around each other. She got killed on the spot, and I lived through it,” he said.

Herman Luhring had a long recovery at hospitals, after he suffered a broken neck and a skull fracture. He relies on regulated pain medication.

He’s grateful for the neighbor who found him, and for a former hired man from his farming days, Mike O’Connor, who, with his brothers in construction in Sioux Falls, S.D., built him a new home within a year.

“Parkersburg has come a long way. It’s neat,” Luhring said.

Herman’s faith sustains him. He recalls a conversation with his wife just a month before the tornado.

“We were sitting in the living room, and she said, ‘One of us is going to be rejoicing and the other is going to be sorry.’ She kind of predicted that. I didn’t think about it much then, but I sure thought about it after the tornado. That helped, because I knew her faith.”

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“. I know the Lord, so that’s what gets me through,” Luhring said. “He’s got a purpose for everything. It’s hard when you lose your mate. But when you look around, there’s always somebody who’s got it worse than you do.”

He has a framed verse from the Book of Jeremiah, which says: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ “

That verse gives Luhring inspiration through the adversity of the tornado and subsequent unrelated health issues. Similarly, Chris Luhring, who occasionally joins his uncle for dinner, shares that same faith and also draws inspiration from a mentor, the late Aplington-Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas, who helped lead Parkersburg’s tornado recovery.

Thomas was shot and killed a year later by a former student, Mark Becker, now serving a life prison sentence.

Luhring received the federal Crime Victim Service Award for his response to that tragedy.

Magee found a new and fulfilling career with a local electrical contracting firm after his position at the Courier fell victim to budget cuts.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who farms near New Hartford, has seen a number of disasters; the 2008 tornado literally hit close to home.

“The families that had people die, that’s going to be lived on for generations,” Grassley said. “But then you had neighbors trying to help neighbors. All the people coming from all over the state to help. Parkersburg’s a big football town: Football teams coming from other high schools to help out. Then you saw the fire departments that came to Parkersburg, came to New Hartford, from all over the state of Iowa to help.”

Grassley made those comments the day the derecho swept across Iowa. The following weekend, he was walking the streets of Cedar Rapids, talking to neighbors.

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The widespread devastation and suddenness of the Aug 10 storm slowed the response and strained emotions in the eyes of many.

Iowans who have been through similar disasters, like the Luhrings and the Magees, know it will take time and support before Iowa heals from this storm.

That support is important, Grassley said. ”Without a doubt.”

Pat Kinney is a Waterloo writer who retired after a serving as an editor and reporter at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. He now works at the Grout Museum. IowaWatch reported this story as part of a project on disasters and mental health with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations, California Health Report, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, City Limits, InvestigateWest, The Island Packet, The Lens, The Mendocino Voice, Side Effects and The State.

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