(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series on the five-year anniversary of the tornado that struck Creston on April 14, 2012.)
A mild and breezy Sunday with clear skies greeted residents one day after a violent tornado shredded much of northwest Creston in the early evening of April 14, 2012.
The sunshine served as a warm ray of hope as residents and employers began assessing the extent of damage from those few harrowing moments shortly after 7 p.m. the previous day.
Viewing the scene in daylight, the task seemed daunting.
David VanHorn, associate administrator of Green Hills Area Educaton Agency, still remembers what he observed as he arrived from his Winterset home Sunday morning to meet colleague Angie Hance at the heavily-damaged AEA building at 1405 N. Lincoln Street.
Only a portion of the building was still standing. Much of the structure and its contents were strewn across Creston Community School property to the east, if not plopped down miles away from the force of the EF2 tornado that had peak winds of 130 miles per hour. Its average width while on the ground was assessed as 600 yards by the National Weather Service.
“We had to go around a long way just to get there,” Van Horn said, “because of all the trees down and power lines lying across the roads. It was definitely an ‘Oh, my gosh!’ situation when you looked around. A good portion of our building was gone or caved in. It hit just past the southwest corner of the building and tore through the other side. One fortunate thing was that it left the north side of the building relatively intact. That’s where all the computer servers were, and our employees were still able to tie into them when we were able to hook them up over at SWCC.”
The lending library, book collections, video tapes, desktop computers and assorted items for teachers and school districts were destroyed. Fortunately, VanHorn said, the recent merger with AEA services in Council Bluffs had allowed access to its lending library to fill the void. Total loss of the building constructed in 1976 and contents was insured at $3 million.
That was just a small portion of the damage left behind by the tornado that occurred with no warning as it formed east of Cromwell and first touched down on Dogwood Avenue as it reached Creston.
One day after the tornado struck, a press conference was held in Creston attended by Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds of Osceola. It was announced there were 14 single-family homes and 16 multi-family units with major damage or destroyed in Creston.
Two homes were destroyed in rural Union County north of Creston. In addition, 40 homes in Creston and rural Union County sustained minor damage.
Still, that was not enough to trigger Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance. The FEMA guidelines for public assistance were $4 million uninsured losses for public property. Community colleges and hopsitals fall into that category.
At the time, there was $1.91 million in uninsured losses on public property from the tornado.
For individual assistance from FEMA, there has to be between 200 and 400 homes destroyed. Creston was well short of that threshold.
However, Branstad announced there was individual state assistance granted, which is income-based at 200 percent of poverty. There was also a local disaster relief fund started.
One of the critical needs in the community at the time was to get operations running as quickly as possible at Greater Regional Medical Center, which was one of the most affected buildings in the path of the tornado.
In-patients were transferred to Alegent Health in Corning on Saturday night, and work began immediately to restore some services on the site.
Extensive work in water extraction and drying was immediately conducted. A temporary roof was soon replaced with a permanent roof.
GRMC continued to triage patient emergencies and urgent care needs on site. Temporary pods provided by Iowa Department of Public Health were located near the Medical Arts Plaza to support the triage operations. Ambulances stood by if needed.
Speciality clinics and outpatient services were closed for a time and the business office was relocated to its senior housing facility.
Greater Regional Home Care/Hospice and Outreach Public Health remained in operation, as did Crest Ridge Estates, the organization’s senior independent housing.
Just eight days after the tornado hit the facility, six physician clinics and several outpatient services were reopened. The surgery wing in the new addition received minimal tornado damage and workers soon finished construction in that area.
“Greater Regional was seeing clinic patients one week after the direct hit from the tornado and then fully functioning less than three months later,” said Monte Neitzel, GRMC chief executive officer. “This was from the ownership, and determination of our excellent staff, business partners and community. We got knocked down that night, but we came back stronger than ever!”
Across the street at Southwestern Community College, several students living in damaged dormitories were relocated to local motels or homes in the community as several residents volunteered to house students for the remaining three weeks of the spring semester.
“A lot of people called us and said they had an extra room that would accomdate a student in need of a place to stay,” said Dr. Barb Crittenden, Southwestern president. “With ony a few weeks of school left, timing-wise it was less difficult than it would have been earlier in the school year.”
Classes at SWCC and in Creston schools resumed on Wednesday, with only two days missed, despite estimated damage in excess of $1 million on the SWCC campus.
“It was amazing how quickly we were back up and operating,” said Tom Lesan, Southwestern vice president of instruction. “If you would have asked me Saturday night, I would have said two months.”
Crittenden said once students had their housing needs met, it was a priority to restore services for them.
“We thought it was important to get students back into their routine,” Crittenden said. “It had hit their home, more or less. So, we wanted them back in class doing what they normally do.”
An army of volunteers cleared debris from the grounds of GRMC, Southwestern and Creston Community Schools in one massive effort on Sunday.
“We had people showing up with buckets, rakes, tractors, skid-loaders, utility vehicles, dump trucks, semi-trailers and most importantly, a spirit to help,” wrote superintendent Tim Hood, now superintendent of Keokuk Community Schools, in a Creston News Advertiser follow-up column.
There was some roof damage at Creston Elementary/Middle School, air return units were blown off the roof and the bus barn was destroyed. But, most of the work on the school grounds entailed cleanup.
“Everyone kind of organized their own volunteers,” said Creston Middle School principal Brad Baker, who was then elementary principal. “But, everyone’s volunteers became everybody else’s, as needed. Charlene Dunphy from our central office organized an effort to get food and water for the volunteers on our site. We didn’t have to organize a lot of other things, because people just showed up and knew what needed to be done. It was pretty impressive.”
The path of the tornado could have been more devastaing to school operations, Baker said.
“If it hit this building directly, 800 kids would be displaced,” Baker said. “We were lucky. It only took pieces and patches of our roof.”
Lesan said the volunteer effort on SWCC’s campus was equally enormous.
“Everything was pretty much picked up by Sunday because of the volunteers,” Lesan said. “It was amazing. It was like ants working. There would be great big pieces of stuff and you’d see it lifted from where it was and before long it was loaded on a trailer or in the back of a dump truck.”
The following week was “Pay It Forward” week on campus and a student effort helped a local farmer, Don Pottinger, get started planting his crops through a big cleanup on his land northeast of campus. Debris from buildings struck by the tornado was strewn across the field.
“We took about 60 people over there and they walked through, picking up everything that had landed over there,” Lesan said. “They were able to start planting that day. And they were wondering if they would ever be able to plant!”
Reconstruction on campus also went quickly, and all of the damaged dorms were fully operational by the start of the fall semester.
“Because it was an emergency, we didn’t have to go through the public bid process,” Lesan said. “Oak View out of Red Oak, which had built one of the dorms and done some other work on campus, got started within a couple of days. They got to our needs quickly at Tech I and had the dorms ready to go for fall. Our instructional center wasn’t damaged, except for part of the hospital roof hanging from the roof.”
From the outside, damage appeared to be minimal at Southern Prairie YMCA, except for a dehumidifying unit for the swimming pool thrown from the roof onto the ground east of the building. But, inside there was considerable water damage from rain getting inside during the storm after the roof was damaged.
Water damage ruined both the basketball and racquetball courts. Cardio machines and other equipment had to be removed from the exercise areas because of floors receiving heavy water damage.
The facility was closed and all land fitness classes were moved to the former Lincoln Elementary School building at the corner of Peterson and Jefferson streets. The pool opened by December.
“We were fortunate in being able to use Lincoln School, and Southwestern allowed our members to use their weight room during the summer,” said Jacki Steffen, now retired as executive director of the YMCA and a resident of Stanton. “Quite a bit of water got into our building and it was a big project to get the dehumidifying unit restored for the pool.”
The wait allowed for some fundraising to complete other renovations planned by the board of directors, Steffen noted.
“We were able to reconfigure our lobby and renovate our locker rooms,” Steffen said, “and we were able to get our family locker room going. We got new flooring for the gym. We were able to accomplish a lot of things. The town was wonderful.”
There was extensive immediate media coverage by Creston Radio and a special Sunday edition on the storm published by the Creston News Advertiser. Des Moines television news teams and the Des Moines Register quickly converged on the scene, as well.
Rich Paulsen, News Advertiser publisher, had experienced the storm first-hand in his residence just east of the hospital on Country Club Drive. His son Brian Burris and a friend had gone to the basement. Paulsen was at the head of the stairs when the garage walls and a portion of the roof began to cave in. His wife Georgia was uptown at a scrapbooking event. They all escaped injury.
“I was going to close the front door when the weather seemed to get bad,” Paulsen said. “It looked like one of those old TV screens that was just static. Everything was going sideways outside. I saw the big utility pole outside snapping and saw the sparks from the transformer on that pole.”
While dealing with his own situation and assisting the response next door at the hospital, he called Stephani Finley, CNA managing editor, about the possibility of printing a special edition about the storm on Sunday. The four-page section included an article detailing the storm’s effect on the community, with 18 photographs taken by staff members Saturday night and early Sunday.
“I talked to Stephani about putting something out right away and she got everyone together,” Paulsen said. “We were fortunate that we didn’t get hit downtown, so everything here was OK. We published a couple thousand of the special sections and got them displayed around town.”
Five years later, the situation for dealing with such a storm is improved in many ways. Safe rooms have been constructed at both public school buildings and in the new restroom building at McKinley Park, which hosts large gatherings for Fourth of July and Party in the Park during the summer thunderstorm season.
Paul Ver Meer, Creston Police chief, and Jo Anne Duckworth, Union County Emergency Mangement director, said emergency communication systems have been upgraded. Advances have been made in the National Weather Service’s technology.
One thing that remains steadfast is the community’s ability to show a kindred spirit of assistance in the aftermath of an event like a tornado.
“After the initial shock that first night, we pretty much knew we had to work together and work as a team to put things back as quickly as we could,” Duckworth said.
Warren Woods, then Creston mayor, said city departments bolted into action to clear debris from the streets and law enforcement officers worked tirelessly on 12-hour shifts throughout the ensuing days. Utility crews were on the scene immediately to erect new poles and restore power to residents and businesses.
Southwestern Community College allowed Creston High School to play home baseball games all summer at its field because of repairs needed on the Panthers’ field.
“The response we had shows what people — Iowans in particular — are willing to do without even being asked,” Ver Meer said. “If the world was like that all of the time, just think what we could do!”