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.
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On June 6, AIR Worldwide, a Boston-based consulting service, estimated the cost to the tornadoes and severe thunderstorms that hit the nation between May 20 and May 27 would result in losses between $4 billion and $7 billion. Tim Doggett, principal scientist at AIR estimated the two major outbreaks of severe weather--the other one taking place in late April-- would likely be the “costliest on record.”Skip to next paragraph
It typically takes five to 10 years for a community to return to some form of normalcy after a major disaster, says Jack Rozdilsky, an expert on how communities rebound from such disasters and an assistant professor at Western Illinois University in Macomb. "What stands out in Parkersburg and what you can take away from them is the extent to which recovery was very rapid," he says. "They found a way to draw on their internal strength for the town's recovery."
A key decision made by the town was to rebuild the high school in a year. This decision was important because the community was proud of its football team.
"In one sense, you are rebuilding the community facility," says Mr. Rozdilsky, who has visited Parkersburg three times. "In another sense, you are building something important that takes the city back to normal."
Parkersburg is not shy about showing itself off. City officials consider the community a sort of template for how small towns ravaged by tornadoes can recover. They call stricken regions offering not just solace, but also advice. Chris Luhring, the police chief at the time of the tornado, does speaking tours on recovery from disasters.
"The No. 1 lesson is that there is this attitude sometimes – and sometimes it's pervasive – that recovery is not possible," says Mr. Luhring, now a town administrator. "That is something we were told by federal officials almost immediately in the aftermath:... 'Recovery is not possible, and if you do recover, you're not going to be the same.' "
To Luhring, this scaling down of expectations was motivation instead. "They didn't know Parkersburg – the farm mentality, you work hard. We're the only place in the country with four active NFL football players," he says.
One essential in Parkersburg's case was that most residents and businesses had insurance that covered a portion of the cost of rebuilding.
In fact, Luhring remembers going with his father, Larry, who lost everything in the tornado, to visit his dad's insurance agent. As they walked out, his father was sobbing. "He said, 'We're done. We're finished,' " recalls Chris. "I said, 'Dad, it will be all right. The fact of the matter is you can't replace people, but things you can replace.' "
Now, Larry Luhring is back in business making monuments, and he produced an elegant black granite memorial bench that sits outside City Hall.
Parkersburg also received aid from FEMA, which paid 90 percent of the town's $6.6 million cleanup bill. However, the agency is now trying to get $1 million back because the school system hired a construction coordinator so it could rebuild the high school quickly. FEMA maintains that the school should recoup the costs associated with the construction coordinator from its insurance company.
"FEMA can be a friend or a frustration," says Mr. Thompson, the superintendent.