Parkersburg, Iowa, emerges as model for tornado recovery
Parkersburg paired FEMA aid with small-town work ethic to rebuild. It could be a template for other tornado-damaged towns.
Even after a devastating tornado, you can rebuild again.Skip to next paragraph
On May 25, 2008, Parkersburg took a direct hit from a tornado that left a trail of destruction 43 miles long and about a mile wide. Cars were wrapped around trees, most of which were stripped even of their bark. In the town of 2,000, some 288 homes and 22 businesses were ruined, and seven people died.
But today, the path of the giant EF-5 tornado is visible only in the area's lack of mature trees. In the footprint of the tornado have risen new gray and tan homes, some sporting an extra garage and a re-inforced basement.
Only one year after the tornado, the high school, which had been destroyed, displayed the shiny trophies its football team had won, and it opened a new basement-level, cement-enclosed wrestling room, which doubles as a storm refuge for the student body and faculty.
Many communities that have recovered from such disasters do so because they have a unity of purpose and a determination to pick themselves up off the ground. In some cases, the communities have surprised themselves with how fast they recovered. At least one town has used a tornado as an opportunity to reinvent itself.
"You keep moving forward; you remain positive," says Jon Thompson, superintendent of the Aplington-Parkersburg school district, adding that the community's strong sense of faith was also important for getting past moments of doubt.
In Parkersburg, after the initial shock of losing everything, many residents contacted their insurance companies to fund the process of removing the debris and to start replacing their property. Most had to find lodging out of town, but city officials encouraged them to rebuild so local businesses would want to remain. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) stepped forward with checks to help rebuild key public facilities like the high school and City Hall. And thousands of volunteers showed up, ready to help wherever needed.
Recovery from powerful tornadoes is something that many communities in addition to Joplin will be focusing on. For example, Springfield, Mass., and 19 other Bay State communities endured at least two tornadoes on June 1.
This year through May 31, there had been four EF-5 tornadoes, with winds of 200 miles per hour or more. FEMA had declared 13 tornado disasters, compared with a 20-year average of just under 12 for an entire year.
"We know that Joplin is the single most deadly tornado since 1950, when they started keeping records," says Craig Fugate, FEMA administrator. "It's shaping up to be one of the worst years since that time frame."