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10 years later, Parkersburg moving forward after devastating tornado (with photos, videos)

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PARKERSBURG -- Herman Luhring can still trace the multiple fractures to his skull with a finger. Pain plagues the 85-year-old on a daily basis.

Both are lingering effects of an EF5 tornado that hit the retired farmer's Parkersburg home May 25, 2008. Friday marked 10 years since the twister inflicted severe damage on the southern half of the community as it cut a 41-mile swath of destruction through Butler and Black Hawk counties, lifting near Buchanan county.

Luhring and his wife, Shirley, took shelter in the shower stall of a basement bathroom as the storm raged above, destroying the house and depositing debris on them. Shirley was one of nine people who died in the tornado. Seven died in Parkersburg and two were killed north of New Hartford.

Another 70 people were injured and at least 627 homes were damaged or destroyed along the storm path, according to the National Weather Service in Johnston.

"I had a broken neck, severe brain trauma and a skull fracture -- which still affects me every day," said Luhring. Surgeons fused together four vertebra in his spinal column days after the disaster. He went through weeks of rehabilitation and months of recuperation.

His home was rebuilt at the same property along Iowa Highway 57 on Parkersburg's southeast edge. Luhring gets around the house and yard just fine for his age, but says medications have an important role in helping him to function.

Luhring displays the two examples of his wife's cross-stitching recovered after the tornado. He has missed Shirley's presence over the last decade. Nonetheless, moving on from the tornado was important for him.

"People can't comprehend how I took it. I felt it was part of life and you had to go on," said Luhring. "I knew it was all in God's hands.

"When you have a problem like this you look around and you see a lot of people have it worse than you. So you build on that strength. You accept what God gave you."

His attitude is emblematic of how the community of Parkersburg responded to the disaster.

No public event is planned Friday to mark the actual date of the tornado. On Sunday, a community church service will be held at 10 a.m. in the Aplington-Parkersburg High School auditorium.

Focus on recovery

The tornado touched down the Sunday before Memorial Day at 4:48 p.m. near the Butler and Grundy county line two miles south of Aplington.

It was nearly three-fourths of a mile wide at 4:59 p.m. while moving through Parkersburg. At 5:09 p.m., the storm was north of New Hartford and later passed through an area north of Cedar Falls. The tornado grew in size to nearly 1.2 miles wide north of Dunkerton.

The storm was one of six EF5 tornadoes to hit Iowa since 1950, according to Craig Cogil, a senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service. That is the top rating on the Enhanced Fujita scale, based on the type and severity of damage. Tornadoes were not rated prior to 1950.

Among those storms, Cogil said the 2008 tornado was the widest. A 2011 tornado southwest of Pocahontas was 1.5 miles wide, but was rated an EF3. Cogil doesn't rank tornadoes, but "from a pure impact basis" he said it appears the 1968 storm that hit Charles City and killed 13 was the worst.

In Parkersburg, a total of 22 businesses and 288 homes were destroyed. The high school was leveled and Parkersburg Elementary School was damaged. Recovery quickly became the focus of the community -- an effort that was helped by thousands of volunteers who pitched in.

"It literally was men, women, children from all over Iowa -- from all over the United States -- that came here that allowed the recovery to happen," said city administrator Chris Luhring, who is Herman's nephew and was Parkersburg's police chief in 2008. Although he's never heard an official dollar amount attached to the city's damage, he rattled off estimates of the various losses totaling $73.6 million.

"We lost 288 homes, and if you drive into Parkersburg you can't tell," he said, noting 268 new homes have been built during the past decade. The town's population of 1,890 on the day of the tornado had grown to 2,019 by 2016, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate.

"We've exceeded everybody's expectations in what we've become," said Luhring. "When people say small rural towns are dying, Parkersburg is not one of them."

Milestones

Business is thriving in the community, as well. Among the new businesses are a car dealership and a hotel. Total property valuations in the city have grown from $84.6 million in 2009 to $123.4 million this year.

"I think all but two businesses that were destroyed were rebuilt," said Virgil Goodrich, a former school district superintendent who was the city's economic development official at the time. "I tried to assist businesses that were destroyed and tried to get them assistance in rebuilding and getting tax credits that they may qualify for."

At the same time, he was coping with the loss of his own home. Goodrich recounted how he and his wife, Diane, headed to the basement of their Lincoln Street home as the tornado approached.

"Just as I was doing that, there was a pound on our back door," he said, from a woman with two young children. They had taken shelter in the adjacent car wash when she thought better of it. "She wanted to come in and, of course, we took her in, down in the basement."

With five people, the group hid in the southwest corner of the basement rather than in the windowless bathroom. "And probably a good thing for all of us, we were perfectly safe in that position," said Goodrich. The only window intact in the basement was right above them while the bathroom was "a mess."

Their house and the neighboring car wash were destroyed.

The couple replaced their split foyer house with a ranch-style home on a larger property. They had previously purchased the neighboring lot and built in the middle of the two. Additionally, they bought the car wash property and are still looking for a business to locate there.

Moving into the new house the following April, Diane Goodrich said, the neighborhood was filled with machinery and dust. As the construction work receded, she noticed birds starting to return to their yard in subsequent years. But it took a decade to reach what she considers a milestone.

"This year, I finally had a cardinal come to my bird feeder," she said.

Inspiring response

Aplington-Parkersburg Community Schools had to improvise as the high school was rebuilt. In the fall of 2008, high school students moved to the middle school/elementary building in Aplington while all elementary students went to classes at Parkersburg Elementary School. Amidst the changes, school officials say they were dealing with students traumatized by the tornado, particularly in the spring when stormy weather occurred.

Superintendent Jon Thompson recalled the seniors met as the year started and "decided they would be a positive influence" despite the difficult situation. "It just ended up being a great year with really terrible circumstances," he said. "In my 30-plus years of education, that was my favorite year ever."

By the fall of 2009, the high school was far enough along for students to return there for classes. The gym and auditorium were finished later that school year.

"I don't know how we pulled it off," said Thompson, noting there was "a lot of help from a lot of people."

The district's enrollment stood at 775 students in 2008 and has grown to 825 this year. "So that's a good sign," he added. "That was one of our initial fears, that our enrollment would decline."

Parkersburg's recovery obviously wasn't limited to rebuilding the schools, businesses and homes that were destroyed. Those injured also had to focus on getting better, and Herman Luhring had a long road ahead.

He doesn't remember what happened after the tornado hit until the emergency responders arrived. They took him to an emergency station and then on to Grundy Center's hospital. They wanted to fly Luhring to Iowa City, but had to take him by ambulance, due to the weather. After three days at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, he was transferred to Covenant Medical Center in Waterloo, where he spent the next four weeks undergoing rehabilitation.

Luhring's recovery continued at his daughter's home near Stout. "We had a lot of macaroni," he said, as granddaughter Kadie Wright, 10 at the time, nursed him through the summer. In November, he moved to Aplington until his home was finished May 9, 2009.

Nephew Chris Luhring describes his uncle as an "amazing man" for the attitude he exhibited through the ordeal and in the years since. He often talks about the city's recovery in a similar way, suggesting it "became inspirational to people." Still, he doesn't want the city's future to be about the disaster.

"I don't know anybody who wants Parkersburg to be defined by the tornado," said Luhring. Rather, he thinks of it as a "grateful, thankful" community that "knows now how strong it can be because of the tornado."

© Copyright 2018, The Courier 100 E. 4th St. 50704

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