It's been a decade since a devastating tornado tracked through portions of Butler and Black Hawk counties, changing the lives of thousands living in its path.
It was the day before Memorial Day, 2008. A warm and humid day was ahead. The treat of severe weather in eastern Iowa was known, but nobody could have imagined what was going to happen that evening. It would forever change the lives of many in Parkersburg, New Hartford and Dunkerton.
"It was so loud, that my wife was screaming in my ear, and I could not hear her," said Parkersburg resident, Perry Bernard.
"It sounded like a jet engine, like you were standing beside an airplane that was revving up," said former Dunkerton resident, Mel Neil.
"I couldn't really see anything, but I heard it. I thought 'oh my God! That's gotta be it," said New Hartford resident Susan Meyer.
It was around 4:30 Sunday afternoon, May 25th.
Storm Track 7 Meteorologist Eileen Loan was on duty that day, and was on air for more than 8 hours. "Very strong storms in eastern Iowa. The first few didn't produce any reported tornadoes on the ground. But this last one now has produced at least two," she said.
Reports were coming in of a large, destructive tornado south of Aplington. The massive storm entered Parkersburg at 4:56 PM. "You will not have any warning, other than what we're telling you now. So, you need to take shelter immediately. This is an extremely dangerous situation. We've had reports of damage. We've had reports, confirmed, at least two tornadoes on the ground," said Loan.
"Eileen was on, and we were watching, and she was talking about it and kind of the path it was going." Parkersburg Mayor, Perry Bernard, recalls those moments. "I actually saw the tornado coming in, but didn't realize that's what it was, because it was so big. It wasn't wedge shape, it was a wall. Just a solid, black wall," he said.
Just a few seconds later..."I could see buildings just exploding into pieces and it was sucking things into it. Then I knew at that point, 'okay, we're in a bad situation.'' He scurried to the basement with his wife and two kids. Then, the tornado passed directly overhead. "It just felt like you were gonna explode. The pressure on your head was just unbelievable," he said.
Bernard lives behind MidWestOne Bank, where a security camera captured video of his neighbors' house being torn apart by the tornado. Three-quarters of a mile wide wide with peak wind speeds up to 205 mph, the twister continued east, destroying most of Aplington-Parkersburg High School. The golf course also took a direct hit.
Bernard and his family emerged to find only a bowl of bananas and a camera, sitting in what was left of his kitchen. Without thinking, he began snapping photos. "It just looked like an atom bomb went off, and everything was totally leveled. Trees were gone, houses gone," he said.
Within just a matter of a few minutes, the powerful EF-5 tornado destroyed more than 300 homes and businesses in Parkersburg. Seven people were killed, with dozens more injured. The destructive tornado showed no signs of letting up as it continued its track east toward the town of New Hartford. The north side of town took a direct hit from the deadly tornado.
"Turned on Channel 7, and here's Eileen Loan saying there's a tornado coming down Highway 57," said Susan Meyer. She recalls rushing to the basement with her husband and father. "Just as it hit, my husband took th last step down, the basement step, when it just kind of imploded, because the glass and everything started flying at us. He was clearing glass out of his ears for weeks," she said.
Meyer and her family found themselves trapped under rubble. It took first responders 45 minutes to find them. "I thought it was a war zone. It was, I mean, there was nothing left," said Meyer.
Numerous homes were destroyed in New Hartford, along with the Oak Hill Cemetery and the Sinclair Elevator.
As the tornado headed into Black Hawk County, it had grown to more than a mile wide.
"Eileen Loan, I remember, came on and said 'if you're in the Dunkerton/Fairbank area, get to shelter now!," said former Dunkerton resident, Mel Neil. He and his wife took Eileen seriously, and headed to the basement. He recalls hearing the windows being blown out, the timbers giving way, and his 100-year-old trees being ripped from the ground.
Within seconds, it was over. "Came upstairs and walked around the house, and we knew there was a lot of, a lot of damage. We sort of settled on that. But, then, we walked outside and looked across the road where all of our buildings were down. The silo was gone. The grain bin, tops of them were all gone," said Neil.
Mel and his wife decided not to rebuild on their land, and moved to Fairbank. Their son, Todd, and his family decided to stay. In fact, their house was just finished by the middle of March of this year.
Many say there were overwhelmed by the response in the days, weeks, and months following the disaster.
"The next few days, we had probably two to three hundred people helping with the debris, cleaning up, doing things that it would have taken months for us to do alone," said Mel Neil.
"I know the next day, we had people coming out, wanting building permits to start building right away, which was unbelievable," said Perry Bernard.
Aplington-Parkersburg High School reopened just 15 months after the tornado. Home and businesses were rebuilt. In fact, Mayor Bernard says they have more people living in Parkersburg now, than they did before. MidWestOne Bank, whose security cameras captured the storm's fury, was rebuilt in the same location.
Traveling down Highway 57 toward New Hartford, you hit "The Curve." Ali Feauchtwanger grew up in New Hartford and works at the town's only gas station (now a Casey's General Store). She says rebuilding it in 2010 was a step forward in recovery. "We don't have much. We have one restaurant, a bar, you know, there's nothing here. So without 'The Curve' there was even less," she said.
Even through the rebuild and the passing years, you can still find reminders of the tornado. "I found a bike the other day in the woods when I was hunting for mushrooms," said Susan Meyer.
In Dunkerton, steel from grain bins can be seen wrapped around surviving trees.
After the "Tornado Turnaround," people told us they pay more heed to those storm warnings. "Any time there's a storm warning coming up, I respect it. More than I ever did before," said Mel Neil.
Susan Meyer said, "If we hadn't heard Eileen telling us that the tornado was on the way, we wouldn't be here." That is why any time there is a Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Warning in any part of the KWWL viewing area, our team of meteorologists will be on the air, tracking the storms and providing potentially life saving information.
The tornado was on the ground for an hour and ten minutes, traveling about 43 miles. Nine people were killed, and 50 others injured. It was the strongest tornado in Iowa since 1976. Click here for the National Weather Service assessment.
There were also five other tornadoes in eastern Iowa on May 25, 2008, including an EF-3 in Hazleton. For more information on the damage and injuries caused by the tornadoes, click here to read the National Weather Service Service assessment.
To hear more of the interviews with the people we spoke with in this story, click here for a web extra. There's also a shot of a piece of art put together by an artist, with some of the debris he found after the tornado in New Hartford.