The Relative Calm After the Storm
By JUSTIN HILL
THE MEETING ADJOURNED in the “Talk” – a staked-down, sand-brown canvas command center – and the canvas door that had been zipped halfway shut on the left side was now pulled open.
Soldiers in digital camouflage-patterned ACUs (army combat uniforms) tracked mud inside from the mushy slop that formed outside after a day filled with mostly rain, slop that covered their tan boots over the toes, onto the giant tent’s black mat floor that sloped slightly toward the door.
Major Dave Nixon sat behind a table, then paced while talking, but most listening, on his cell phone at the back of the tent. A three-foot by four-foot map of the war zone, divided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency into five sectors, hung behind him on the silver canvas wall. Above the map, florescent tube lights – powered, along with laptops and two-way radio chargers, by a generator humming outside – ran the length of the 30-foot long tent. More than 30 boxes of pizza, most of them just emptied, sat on a table on the left side of the temporary structure that kept the breeze and the chill of the falling evening off the soldiers who filled it.
The “Talk” was abuzz before some of the Iowa National Guard 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry’s 160 soldiers called into service embarked on that night’s mission to provide security during curfew.
A few soldiers crowded around a laptop. Another marked a spot on the tent’s other five-sectored map hanging on the wall opposite the stack of pizzas with his left index finger. Others waited in line to be issued one of the walkie-talkies that crammed the table in front of them just a couple muddy steps inside the door, some of them holding onto the orange vests they’d put on before taking their spots at one of five checkpoints. The rest divided into groups of four and jumped into Humvees.
A few steps south of the “Talk” was a parking lot. A few steps east of the parking lot was a twisted, ravaged, hollow, jagged shell of what used to be Aplington-Parkersburg High School, an example of the catastrophic destruction a seven-tenths of a mile wide EF5 tornado left behind when it decimated the southern third of Parkersburg late afternoon on Sunday, May 25.
Just beyond the small evergreens to the north, on the other side of the line of camouflaged one-man tents soldiers not heading out on patrols were staking down, kids played. They climbed on and off the back deck of a house where a piece of dangling siding appeared to be the only damage. Only a few steps away, a large pine had been ripped up by the roots.
The initial tornado warning was issued that Sunday at 4:22 p.m. for northeastern Grundy, northeastern Hardin, southeastern Franklin and Butler counties, including the cities of Aplington and Parkersburg. The follow-up storm-based tornado warning for northern Grundy and southeastern Butler, including the cities of Aplington, Parkersburg and New Hartford, went out at 4:46 p.m, including the warning text: tornado will be near Parkersburg by 5 p.m.
The tornado touched down two miles south of Aplington, near the Butler-Grundy county line at 4:48 p.m. Three minutes later, another warning was issued.
The black monster, with its satellite twisters spinning around it, slammed into the southern third of Parkersburg at 4:59 p.m., sounding like a freight train.
But it didn’t just sound like a freight train. It also sounded like glass shattering and homes being sucked from foundations before crashing back down, or some homes simply being shredded in the over 200 mile-per-hour winds. It sounded like vehicles turning into missiles and anything that was airborne turning into projectiles and striking random targets, pitting siding like bullets. It sounded like once-mighty trees being uprooted, leaves sucked from branches and giant limbs splintering.
But it also sounded like a miracle that all but six people emerged from the unspeakable.
After downgrading to an EF2, despite growing to over a mile wide near Dunkerton, the tornado lifted after covering more than 50 miles and spending an hour and 10 minutes on the ground.
Tornado damage in Butler County alone is estimated at over $3 million.
Less than 0.1 percent of all tornados grow to EF5 status, the highest in the new Enhanced Fajita Scale. The last F5 tornado to hit Iowa was in 1976, and there have only been two EF5s in the country since the upgraded scale was unveiled last year. The other one hit Greensburg, Kan., last May, a tornado that was nearly two miles wide, killing 11 people and taking out an estimated 95 percent of the town of just over 1,500, almost 400 people smaller than Parkersburg.
The National Guard had been called to Parkersburg to provide security, man check points and patrol the part of the tornado’s path that lies inside the city limits from the 8 p.m. curfew when victims and helpers had to leave for their own safety, and 6 a.m., when they could return to continue to clean up things that for many took on a new meaning after perspective was shifted by the colossal twister.
There were rumors about looters before soldiers, including Hampton natives Aaron Morrison and James Morrison, were on the ground Tuesday morning, May 27, but there wasn’t a problem after that. Weather was still an issue, though.
After a day of mostly rain that dampened the clean-up efforts Thursday, there was a chance of severe weather again that night with storms firing up in eastern Nebraska late that afternoon. But it wasn’t just wet, it was cold. Temperatures, which never met the projected high, were already below the forecasted low.
First Sergeant Chris Clausen – who works for Mid-American Energy when not called upon like he was three nights earlier as he was tending the concession stand at his son’s baseball game back home in Ida Grove – slipped on his cold weather gear, including gloves, and hopped into one of the Guard’s Gator ATVs, the one with the windshield.
The 160 Guardsmen from the 133rd, along with 15 additional soldiers and airmen from the 67th Troop Command, Joint Forces Headquarters, 734th Regional Support Group, 133rd Test Squadron, 132nd Fighter Wing and Iowa Air National Guard Headquarters – who are “providing communications support, transporting water, creating emergency electrical power and providing operational support,” according to public affairs officer Lieutenant Colonel Greg Hapgood – answer directly to Butler County sheriff Joe Johnson, the incident commander, but Clausen isn’t far down the chain.
The first sergeant isn’t responsible for tacking up the orders that hang to the left of the five-sectored map opposite the stack of pizzas in the “Talk,” orders to “conduct security patrols” and stop “unauthorized entry to the hot zone between 2000 and 0600 hours,” but Clausen is responsible for making sure they are carried out.
The 133rd had been to Iraq and has the distinction, good or bad, of being the longest-serving unit in the Sandbox, having spent 16 months in country. This time they weren’t carrying weapons, they were wearing soft caps and they didn’t have to steel their nerves, but the soldiers, using words like “hot zone,” took their duties just as seriously.
They only wished they could do more.
“It’s frustrating,” Aaron Morrison said while walking the streets with a group Wednesday afternoon. “We wish we could help with clean-up, but we can’t.”
But there are liability issues and legalities and the last thing the Guard wants to do is take any business away from civilians who make a living removing debris. Still, it’s hard for Clausen to tell his men not to lend a hand, especially those who grew up near Parkersburg and know it well, who strained their eyes trying to latch on to something familiar when they came to town, something that would help them get their bearings.
“I want out of my orders,” one soldier told Clausen.
“Why’s that?” Clausen asked.
“So I can help,” the soldier said.
But the Guard is helping.
“These people’s lives are scattered all over and we need to make sure it’s all still there when they get back in the morning,” Clausen said before heading out on patrols Thursday.
Like the groups of four in Humvees, the first sergeant and his Gator snaked through Parkersburg, taking random paths through what many aptly describe as a war zone – appropriately dotted with American flags with a few red A-P Falcon flags scattered here and there – even if its not the kind of scene the 133rd saw in Iraq.
“If you watch the History Channel or the Discovery Channel,” said Clausen, “World War II battlefields look just like this.”
Clausen has worked hurricane reconstruction and had an idea of what to expect when he came to Parkersburg, but was still shocked at the sight when the unit rolled into town from the east Tuesday morning.
He wound his way to Highway 57/14 and headed west for a little more than a half-mile, about the same distance the twister was across when it blew into town. He pulled over at the checkpoint just off the 57/14 curve to the south where the east-west highway turns north on the southwest side of town, where what looked more like a wall than a tornado made its entrance, and asked how two of his men were doing. He then watched as they tell a woman in a minivan, who only wanted to drive the half-dozen blocks north through the devastation to get to the turn-off where 57 splits off Highway 14 to the west and heads for Aplington, that they were sorry, but they just couldn’t let her through.
A couple nights earlier, Clausen had watched as a vehicle approached that same check point, only to turn around. The first sergeant happened to then drive to the checkpoint where 14 splits off from 57 and heads south on the southeast side of town. There the car was again, turning around. It tried yet again to approach a third check point.
“At that point, it was time to call law enforcement,” Clausen said.
He steered the whining Gator down into the destruction. Outside of the floodlights at each check point and the floods in the parking lot near the “Talk” that seemed so far away now, even if it was a matter of blocks, the lights of the ATV were the only illumination against the night that had settled in.
Clausen marveled at the natural force responsible for the devastation, as he drove past a house with the exterior walls that were torn away, leaving only a few interior walls, two painted baby blue and two others across the open hall painted purple in what may have been bedrooms. The house had been sucked from its foundation and set down on the curb.
A few blocks north, Clausen made his way past a roofless house with a buckled wall and a spray-painted sign out front that was a testament to the sense of humor most residents carry alongside their unbending pride. It read: “For Sale, Open Floor Plan, Natural Light.”
But there is not always humor. A couple blocks south, over on 57/14, what used to be a house with only a few center walls standing, the rest in piles around it and even scattered around the neighborhood, piles that were mixed with rubble from other houses treated the same way, the owner scrawled out their frustration in giant, red, spray-painted letters after an adjuster from a certain insurance company “SAID THIS CAN BE SAVED!!!”
Clausen drove west and north, past the farthest northern edge of the destruction that is well defined, into the untouched part of Parkersburg with glowing street lamps and fortunate ones in their like-nothing-ever-happened houses, sitting in front of their televisions, enjoying electricity for the first time in five days.
“I wonder what they feel,” said Clausen, leaning forward on the Gator’s steering wheel, pointing at the pristine houses with front porch lights lighting up front steps, referring to a sort of survivor’s guilt. “I try to put myself in their place. Would I feel guilt? I almost think I would. Look, their antennas are still on their roofs.”
He made his way west, over to the Parkersburg Veterans Memorial building, a place he tells soldiers to go to refresh from time to time with some coffee or a beverage, and pulls up to a Humvee just as a soldier climbs into the front passenger seat and shuts the door.
After the soldier realized whose eyes were locked on him, he rolled down the window.
“Did you leave the waitress a nice tip?” Clausen asked.
“Yes, first sergeant,” the soldier replied.
“And if you were made of wood, would your nose be growing?” Clausen asked.
“No, first sergeant,” the soldier said as the other three laughed.
The days are long for the Guard, so Clausen tries to keep the mood light. Twelve hours on and twelve hours off. At least that’s what they try to stick to. Sometimes those “on” hours can get longer. Before Clausen finally went to sleep on Wednesday night for the first time since arriving, he’d been up for 40 hours.
The 160 soldiers from the 133rd are also away from their families again for a short while after being gone for a total of 22 months because of Iraq.
But they’ll make the sacrifice because of what they see around them, scenes like the two purple-flowered crosses and a flag at half-mast in front of a barren foundation on the north side of 57/14 on the southwest side of town that Clausen fears the meaning of, or the earlier scene of the man with a cane in one hand and a hoe in the other picking through what might look like a porch if not for the dining room table and chair behind him.
“Any inconvenience to us pales in comparison to what these people are going through,” Clausen said. “The days may get long and after a hard day at work you just want to go home. We can still do that. These people can’t. They don’t have that comfort.”
But sometimes it almost gets to be too much. Earlier in the day, Clausen stopped his Gator in the middle of it all and sat back, felt the rain coming down and was almost overwhelmed thinking about “home” and what it all meant.
There must have been many times – the times that take up space between the therapeutic laughs and jokes – between the day before Memorial Day and now when the victims in Parkersburg and New Hartford and Dunkerton felt the same.
Just before 10 p.m. Thursday, when there was a dark-as-pitch, eerie silence over Highway 57/14, the kind when wide, darting eyes strain to focus on anything, lightening flashed the sky white, silhouetting piles of wood and plaster and twisted metal and jagged, leafless, shattered trees that had once been houses, a Kwik Star gas station, a Pizza Ranch, a neighborhood. But the sudden bolt of intensely white light didn’t make it any less eerie.
A half hour earlier, the wife of a Guardsman placed a cell phone call to her husband, who was standing down after his shift serving victims of a natural disaster. She talked as she crouched alone in their basement, taking shelter from a funnel cloud that touched down near their Lake City home 120 miles west of Parkersburg.
Just before 10 p.m., the soldier, standing near the Salvation Army tent near the shattered A-P High School, was still shaking, his wife’s scared voice still ringing in his right ear a half-hour later. He was fearing for her safety and trying to calm his nerves by taking drag after drag off his cigarette, surrounded in every direction by reminders of what a twister can do.
Minutes later, two soldiers wearing orange vests – one soldier from Waterloo and the other from Cedar Falls, just a short drive east of Parkersburg – manned the check-point on 57/14, just a few blocks north of the curve on the southwest side of town.
“Just heading out of town?” one soldier asked as he approached one of the several cars to pass through the checkpoint since curfew fell almost two hours before, the sky flashing white again behind him. “Have you heard about the weather?”
Two counties over, the National Weather Service had just issued another tornado warning.