Tornadoes trash 'Cleanest Town in America'

BY KD MCINTOSH | WASHINGTON, IOWA | May 23, 1998


WASHINGTON, IOWA (May 23, 1998) -- The tornado siren on Friday, May 15th was frightening to

hear.

Residents had followed national reports of twisters devastating homes,

farms and whole towns in other parts of the country. The thought that the

same thing could happen in their own hometown, had residents in an

overwhelming mix of dread and fear.

But then there was the all-clear on weather radios, prompting sighs of

relief all over the community as people climbed out of their hiding places

ready to feel the sun on their faces again.

Within minutes, at 5:15 p.m., the winds struck.

Those who saw what happened describe it as a yo-yo effect. It appeared one

tornado swung in, swung out and then swung in again, effectively hitting

the little town twice. Some say it was more than one twister at work. Some

say it was one touching down twice in a 'skip'.

Others, who judge by the aftermath, say it was just one funnel that cut

through town and then wobbled a bit in the rural areas beyond.

"I'd say it came in a straight line. I walked that line on Sunday," Dean

Dykstra said. He's the town's building inspector.

He said the tornado came in from the south end, on Highway 1, and worked

it's way north. Power lines were downed, cutting off traffic and causing

treacherous navigation for the Highway Patrol and others trying to mobilize

for the stricken community.

However it happened, the storm assault left Washington County -- the home

of 21,000 people -- with major damage. More than 170 residences were hit,

half of which were destroyed. And the town of Washington, always known as

"The Cleanest Town in America", was left looking dirty and broken.

Yale Jarvis, Washington City Police Chief and Washington County Sheriff,

said residents owed their thanks to the supreme being for their lives.

"There was a guiding hand protecting us."

For instance, he said, three apartment complexes were demolished. "Yes," he

said, "there were people in them. It was just an amazing thing that nobody

got killed."

Twenty-seven people were injured, 26 of which were treated and released.

One man suffered a spine injury when a furnace was blown loose and hit him,

and he was airlifted to an Iowa City hospital.

All together, 14 homes, 12 farm structures, 20 pieces of machinery and 28

livestock were destroyed outside of the city. In town, 40 units were

destroyed, 25 of which were low-income housing.

"We were short on low-income housing in-town anyway. We had been trying to

come up with ways to deal with that problem before the tornado hit, and now

we really have to solve it," Dykstra added. He said he's been told total

damages have been estimated in excess of $10 million.

Dykstra said Jarvis was instrumental in pulling the town and resources

together after the tornado hit. Jarvis says he couldn't have done it

without the volunteers, churches and faith-based relief help that poured in

almost from the start.

Governor Terry Branstad was even on the scene right after it happened,

apparently having heard of the catastrophe when he was in a nearby town.

Unable to pitch in and help physically, the governor gave moral support and

made sure the national guard was deployed to help, Jarvis said.

"The first day, we had more than 700 people signed up to do whatever they

could. The Mennonites were here almost immediately, and the Salvation Army

came in to assist," he added.

Nearly 1500 people from surrounding counties, large construction companies

and faith-based agencies poured into the area to help.

Mennonite Disaster Services helped organize approximately 1500 people who

walked the fields picking up debris. Mostly, it was neighbor helping

neighbor and churches helping everybody, Jarvis and Dykstra said.

"What we were told should have taken weeks to do on cleanup, we

accomplished in two days with all the help," added Jarvis.

Ed Raber, economic development director in the community of 7200 people,

said what was amazing was that there was no damage to the infrastructure.

Had the waste water treatment plant been hit, the volunteers would have had

a more difficult time helping. However, the town also would have been

federally declared a disaster area.

Because there was no declaration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency

(FEMA) told the town it could not help them. Luckily, the Iowa Emergency

Management Division (IEMD) office stepped in, according to Ellen Gordon,

IEMD administrator.

"Iowa does not administer grant funds for individuals and families in

disasters, so we leave it to churches, groups and organizations to fulfill

uninsured or under insured losses and needs.

"We have been working, though, with the state economic development program

to see what funds are available to go into Washington and help them

rebuild," Gordon said.

Pastor Brett Best, of the First Baptist Church and head of the Washington

Ministerial Association, said meetings May 21 and 22 sorted out how the 17

denominations in town planned to assist.

"The Lutheran Social Services is providing (contributions and) counseling.

They are part of our Mental Health Care Consortium, that combines

religious, private and public mental health care."

He said the faith-based organizations that have responded so far include:

Lutheran Disaster Response, working through the Iowa Lutheran Social

Services; Catholic Charities and Catholic Churches of the Iowa City

Deanery; Assembly of God; Presbyterian Disaster Assistance; and First

Christian and First Baptist Churches, each applied for One Great Hour of

Sharing funds to help.

"We were told the tornado was rated a 3 out of 5. It was a fairly mean

bugger. So we're very fortunate," Gordon said.

Jarvis agreed. "There was a lot of damage, to be sure. But in situations

like this, we always say if you can walk and talk afterward, that's what

counts."

Posted May 23, 1998


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