I’ve been debating for a couple of days whether to write anything about the tornado that smashed Parkersburg and parts of neighboring towns on Sunday. I really didn’t think I had much to add, opinion-wise. It’s a horrific scene and my heart goes out to everyone touched by the tragedy. I have friends and family from that neck of the woods and, luckily, everyone’s OK.
I’ve thought often of my own hometown, Belmond, over the past few days. It was also on the receiving end of one of Iowa’s rare F5 tornadoes in 1966, four years before my birth and seven years before my parents made the town our home. The unusual tornado hit in the middle of October, on homecoming Friday, no less, killed six people and damaged or destroyed roughly 600 homes.
Needless to say, Belmond was never the same, just as Parkersburg is forever altered. I saw the damage only in pictures, but the long term scars and imprints were all around. Some were physical, like the fact that Belmond had a lot fewer big, mature trees than most towns. Many historic Main Street buildings were destroyed, so the rebuilt business district has a much different aesthetic than most small Iowa towns, with a lot of late 60s and early 70s architecture. There’s an arcade roof over the sidewalks on Main Street, for example, created as part of the post-tornado revitalization.
Although I certainly couldn’t quantify it, I remember people remarking on how Belmond had a particularly itchy trigger finger on its tornado sirens whenever the skies darkened. If there truly was a hyper-sensitivity to severe storms, I didn’t see it, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Anxiety would be understandable, especially on the part of people who lived through it. The 1966 storm hit with virtually no warning.
(Incidentally, I haven’t heard much from the readers who blasted my column last month on blowhards who complain about storm warnings interrupting TV shows. Go figure.)
But that disaster also made my hometown stronger, and maybe even more optimistic than your average burg. I think people took a lot of pride in the fact that the community came together, picked itself up, with a lot of help from its Iowa neighbors, and survived. There was a feeling on the part of that generation that if the town could come back from that, it could accomplish big things. (Of course, Belmond hasn’t been immune to hard economic realities hitting many small towns in recent years. Main Street certainly isn’t what it was 20 years ago)
Tornado anniversaries were part somber reflection, part celebration of resilience. I remember the 20th anniversary remembrance in 1986, while I was in high school. We re-staged a homecoming parade, complete with the BHS band, and stood in silence at 2:55 p.m., the moment the storm hit.
By the time the 30th anniversary rolled around in 1996, I was a reporter in Fort Dodge and went back home to do interviews for a story looking back. I’ll always remember talking with Maynard Holmgaard, a postal carrier caught by the tornado while he walked his afternoon mail route.
He told me the last thing he remembers that day was delivering mail to a house as rain started falling on an unusually muggy fall afternoon. Turns out the force of the twister’s winds blew him up against a pole that was then wrapped with tin sheeting from a shredded grain bin. Searchers found him only because his feet were sticking out. His face was so caked in dirt that his own family barely recognized him.
But he was fortunate to be held upright, because that reduced bleeding from a serious head wound he suffered. He was unconscious for weeks. Like the town, he survived and lived and healed. But as I found out when he grabbed my hand and guided it along a dip in the top of his head, the scar remained.
Although it’s hard to believe now when the scars are so fresh, Parkersburg will survive and heal as well.