Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The 50th Anniversary Of The Charles City Tornado

An aerial view of Charles City, looking North, after the F-5 tornado on May 15th, 1968
There are certain days that you will never forget. A special birthday, a wedding, a birth of a child, a job promotion, a bicycle ride, or what have you.

One of my "burned into memory" days is May 15th, 1968. I was a first grade student at McKinley Elementary school, living in a different house, having just moved across town, and the child of a stay at home mom and a father who worked at the Oliver Farm Equipment factory. My sister, who was four, was at home with my Mom, not old enough to attend school yet.

May 15th was a hot day. I remember walking home from school the new way. Only the third time I'd done it, since we had moved the weekend before. The walk took me by the local towing service, Leon & Gene's Texaco, where smashed cars from accidents would sit in a row behind the station. I stopped and examined the latest fender benders. Then I walked across the fairly new Brantingham Bridge, the newer elderly housing projects were just to the west on the South side of the river. The road over the Cedar was Highway 18, and it was a very busy street. My new home was on this highway just a few blocks North of the Cedar River on 4th and B Street's corner. I remember staring over the bridge railing looking at the running waters of the Cedar River, and I was thinking it was humid and pretty hot that day. I was looking forward to watching the cartoons on the T.V when I got home.

From near the Floyd County Fairgrounds about six miles West of Charles City
You see, we had no video, computer, or other media distractions then. Just two grainy T.V. stations and afternoon cartoon shows which were sandwiched in between the afternoon soap operas and the evening news. My show was called "Bart's Clubhouse" on KGLO, a station out of Mason City. The host, Bart Curran, was the station's meteorologist.

During the show, Bart broke in and told the viewers that there was a bad storm on the way and it was going along a line marked by a ruler he was holding on an Iowa map. The ruler went directly through Charles City. Of course, being seven years old, I was sent into a tizzy by this information and was running around trying to get my parents to "do something", but all they did was brush me off. Meanwhile it got darker and darker and it started in raining.

Along about the time we were supposed to sit down to the evening meal, it was dark as night, hailing, and then the lights went out. Having never been in our new house's basement, my Dad picked me up and, just before ducking into the dank blackness, I turned to see a huge three story high basswood tree fall on the highway. A few minutes later the world I knew was turned inside out.

After the tornado I couldn't wander around due to all the debris everywhere in the town.

The city was forever changed. I didn't know the city well then, so for me, it was just a bummer since all this cool stuff was going on all Summer and I was limited to the house. But in reality 13 people lost their lives, many hundreds were injured, and millions of dollars of property were damaged. The city was wrecked and it needed a lot of help.

Later on I grew to understand the gravity of what had happened. In 2008, when a neighboring town called Parkersburg suffered an F-5 tornado, I was able to be a volunteer and help those victims clean up. It was the least I could do after having benefited from similar aid in 1968, despite my being unaware of it

Today marks 50 years since that day I won't forget. I'll be especially mindful of that day long ago on this anniversary.

For a more in depth look at what it was like that day and shortly afterward, the "Mason City Globe Gazette" ran this story Sunday about the anniversary of the Charles City Tornado.


Ari said...

That’s an impressive story. I am sure that must be a terrifying experience one will never forget. The warnings have gotten a little better but tornados are still a mystery.

Steve Fuller said...

We were north of Dunkerton after the Parkersburg Tornado extended its path east and damaged my wife's grandmother's house. The damage to the houses and buildings was simultaneously impressive and frightening. I've never seen so much topsoil stripped off a piece of land before.

Zach Bonzer said...

My mother was in that tornado with her grandmother, who was one of the 13 killed. I've always wondered what Charles City could have been like had that never happened. Her story has always driven my fascination of the weather.

Awesome of you to help out Parkersburg. I remember the news report of that one vividly.

Guitar Ted said...

@Zach Bonzer- First of all, I am sorry for your loss.

That said, I agree with you about what "could have been" with regard to Charles City.