(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on the five-year anniversary of the tornado that struck Creston on April 14, 2012.)
As Union County Emergency Management director, Jo Anne Duckworth was keeping her eye on the weather on a Saturday afternoon in April 2012 that would eventually drop a 130-miles per hour twisting surprise on the west edge of Creston.
“The (National) Weather Service kind of gave a heads up on a storm system coming in, which had the potential to be violent,” said Duckworth, who was home with her family on High and Dry Road south of Creston.
At about 4 p.m. she enacted the Code Red system that sends out severe weather notification via telephone service throughout Union County.
Soon, it began raining hard and the wind picked up. That prompted Duckworth to call the Union County Law Enforcement Center dispatcher on duty to inform the Creston Fire Department of the possible need to send out storm spotters. At the time, she did not realize the small town of Thurman in Fremont County had already been hit by a tornado.
She decided at about 6:40 p.m. it would be a good idea to send out another Code Red message to ensure county residents were aware of the threatening weather conditions.
“I remember we were having tacos and I kept my eye on the weather,” Duckworth said. “All of a sudden I looked at the radar and I thought, ‘Ah shoot.’ I just knew from looking it was trouble. I called in to sound the sirens. It was too late.”
The National Weather Service confirmed the next day that a strong EF2 tornado hit Creston at approximately 7:05 p.m. Saturday with peak winds estimated at 130 miles per hour. The average path width was 600 yards.
The tornado began about 1 1/2 miles east of Cromwell and tracked northeast through the northwest edge of Creston. Greater Regional Medical Center and Southwestern Community College received major damage, and the Green Hills Area Education Agency building 1405 N. Lincoln Street was virtually destroyed.
The tornado continued tracking northeast and damaged the Creston Community Schools bus barn and some of the athletic facilities, including sending the high school band trailer on a journey of nearly 2 miles toward Cherry Street Road after blasting through the football scoreboard at Panther Field.
Three people were transported to Des Moines for serious injuries, but there were no fatalities. Connie Brentnall and her son Terry were thrown from her residence east of the hospital on Clayton Road. Mrs. Brentnall was found injured laying on Townline Street in the aftermath of the tornado.
While multiple Southwestern dormitories were heavily damaged, there was only one student injured as she rushed to safety in the interior portion of one of the buildings.
“We were blessed in so many ways,” Duckworth said.
It was a Saturday night, so there were no employees in many of the damaged buildings at SWCC and the AEA. The dorms were lightly inhabited for the weekend with no athletic teams playing games at home. Southern Prairie YMCA, which sustained roof damage with a large swimming pool dehumidifier ripped from the structure’s roof, had closed one hour earlier.
While Creston schools had hosted several teams in the Panther Relays just 24 hours earlier, the campus was quiet on Saturday evening. Track coach Pat Schlapia was inside the middle school on the second floor making copies of track meet results when the tornado hit. While his car parked in front of the building was heavily damaged, he was not injured.
“If this was on a Monday night with more people around, or it veers a half-mile to the south through all those houses, a lot of people are in trouble,” Duckworth said.
While the human casualty was low, property damage was extensive throughout the area. Tom Lesan, SWCC vice president of economic development, said he felt a pressure change in his ears when the storm went through near his home on North Birch Street. Power was lost and he and his wife Danette were bailing water out of the basement sump pump when he got a call that a tornado had struck in the area of the hospital and college campus.
Lesan quickly proceeded to meet Dr. Barb Crittenden, Southwestern’s president, on campus as the Student Center is a designated emergency shelter. He vividly recalls what he witnessed as he drove onto the property.
“I thought war had broken out,” Lesan said. “There was debris all over the parking lot. All the glass out of the front of Tech I was gone. You could see that the Y was hit, and our new dorms. Some of the hospital’s roof was hanging on the round building (Instructional Center).
While Crittenden made sure the emergency generators were enacted in the Student Center and attended to students gathering there, Lesan took a flashlight over to inspect the dorms to check for anyone in need of medical attention.
He said it was fortunate there were no serious injuries, considering the damage he observed.
“There was a ceiling fan laying on a bed in Spartan Hall,” Lesan said. “We don’t have ceiling fans anywhere in our dorms. Who knows where it came from?”
There were other striking images on campus. A playing card was stuck in the metal of the Tech I building’s exterior. A dollar bill was thrust halfway into the ground.
“Those 4-foot concrete parking bunkers we have, one of them was up in the roof of the dorm,” Lesan said. “We had wood stuck into the side of the building like a spear. You saw so many examples of how people could have been seriously hurt.”
“As soon as we heard that no one was injured, then we thought we could deal with the rest of it,” Crittenden said.
Gov. Terry Branstad declared Union County an emergency disaster area Saturday night and held a press conference Sunday afternoon at GRMC. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds of Osceola was also in attendance, and Duckworth said Rep. Joel Fry of Osceola had traveled to Creston Saturday night to offer assistance.
Eight of Greater Regional Medical Center’s inpatients, plus an obstetrics patient and infant, were transferred Saturday night to Alegent Health in Corning.
Lou Ann Snodgrass, GRMC chief quality officer, said Greater Regional’s hospice home was hit and five patients were transferred to local nursing facilities. Crest Ridge Estates also received damage.
Paul Ver Meer, Creston police chief, lives on North Mulberry Street not far from where the tornado exited Creston. He noticed the weather turning for the worse around 7 p.m., but like everyone else, had not heard of any imminent danger.
“I thought I better call the law enforcement center and check on things, and they said they had just started getting inundated with calls that a tornado had hit the hospital, SWCC and the school,” Ver Meer said. “I went down there immediately and made sure dispatch was staffed for answering the phones, and started calling in off-duty officers.”
Ver Meer met with Duckworth, Union County Sheriff Rick Piel and Creston Fire Chief Todd Jackson to form an action plan.
“We divided up responsibilities,” Ver Meer recalled. “Rick and I took care of getting the area blocked off to traffic, because there were live power lines and poles down in the streets. Jo took care of getting ambulance people and anyone needed to bring in additional equipment. The fire department took care of search and rescue. In the meantime we had ambulance services and law enforcement from all over the state just showing up, in case we needed help. We were able to get some displaced people to Salem Lutheran Church and the college (Student Center). Once the search was done, then it was time for cleanup.”
Monte Neitzel, GRMC chief executive officer, said the response of hospital staff and emergency crews was exceptional.
“As we look back at that night five years ago, we have a lot of pride and respect for our organization, and the community of southwest Iowa,” Neitzel said. “The way our employees responded that night and the weeks following the tornado was nothing short of amazing. We came together as a team to ensure the safety of our patients.”
It actually turned out best for GRMC patients that there was no warning, considering what the tornado did to the facility.
“One thing we learned, and in multiple presentations to other hospitals and organizations since then we’ve brought this up,” Snodgrass said, “was that our plan had been to put people in an interior hallway on the patient care floor in the event of a tornado warning. Thankfully, we hadn’t done that. When it hit and came through that solarium window, it created a wind tunnel through that hallway. We had employees who were there tell us it knocked them down.”
Snodgrass said the new surgical and birthing center wing was nearing completion and scheduled to open soon when it was damaged by the tornado.
Once it crossed school property, the tornado veered north and east, at which time it was downgraded to an EF1. It crossed Cherry Street Road, damaging farmsteads and power lines along the way, It took the upper potion off the Don Pottinger residence on Cherry Street Road and destroyed Dennis Leith’s log home and barn at REA Road and 125th Street.
From 7:07 to 7:14 p.m. the NWS tracked the tornado until it dissipated 10 miles northeast of Creston.
“I was worried we were going to have all of these agencies from other towns here helping us and then get word that one of those communities was hit, too,” Duckworth said “but fortunately that wasn’t the case.”
Jackson, heading up the search and rescue operation, told the News Advertiser the tornado seemed to run a route along the most serious path it could — a nursing home, assisted living center, hospital, college dormitories, townhouses, apartments and homes — yet with less than a handful of injured people.
“When you look back, the biggest thing is how blessed we were to have survived it and not have any fatalities,” Duckworth said. “And, we’re blessed to live in a community where all the people pull together and get jobs done.”
Afterward, Duckworth received a call from the National Weather Service concerning the fact no warning had been issued.
“The weather service guy called me and apologized over and over,” Duckworth said. “But, really, you just blink at the wrong time and you missed it on radar. It was already here by the time they really saw it.”
(Friday: A community regroups with a massive clean-up effort and the rebuilding begins. Five years later, there is little evidence of the destruction unfurled by the twister in those few harrowing moments on a spring weekend evening in southwest Iowa.)