You can tell by the trees. They’re tall. Still flowering in the spring.
And then you can tell by trees. Missing from yards, the birds not chirping as loudly.
When you know what to look for, you can still spot clues that an EF-5 tornado leveled nearly half of Parkersburg five years ago. But, according to Chris Luhring, the town is bouncing back.
“We don’t have and old town and a new town, we have one Parkersburg, we always have and we always will.”
Luhring, the police chief at the time of the storm and now the City Clerk, says it’s important to remember everyone suffered. Even though it looked like half the town was spared, damage was inflicted everywhere.
“One of the hardest things was for our downtown businesses to be told, “well you weren’t destroyed, you’re probably doing alright. Probably between 700 and 1,000 people were homeless. They couldn’t live here. So they weren’t shopping downtown, they weren’t visiting those establishments. Everybody hurt.”
Everybody hurt, even if you can only see the scars on the south side of town.
But the transition from older Parkersburg, to the newer, rebuilt side of town is just a visual contrast. In the case of the mayor, Perry Bernard, he has a lifetime of contrast.
Bernard’s family rode out the ef5 storm in the basement. While his home blew apart around him, his neighbor’s home was caught on this security camera footage. Amazingly, Bernard also rode out category 5 hurricane Andrew in 1991.
“I’ve been in the eyes of hurricanes and I’ve been through high winds, category 5 hurricanes, category 3, I’ve been through several of them, and nothing can compare to an EF 5 tornado.”
Just two months before the storm Bernard says he and his family had decided against building a new home across town.
But after being forced into building a home, they were even more determined not to move.
"It wasn’t an option. This is home. You clean up and pick up and rebuild,” Bernard says.
Bernard wasn’t alone. Luhring says 20 of the 22 businesses lost rebuilt, many in their same spots, as did most residents – and the homes they built are better than ever.
“Ultimately a community is a long-term investment,” says Luhring. “You have to trust your citizens.”
Perhaps the most symbolic investment came at Aplington-Parkersburg high school. With the building ripped apart, superintendent Jon Thompson says it was important to let everyone know the Falcon’s would rise from the ruins.
“Rumors started flying around that we’re going to have to go to school in other districts and maybe the school won’t recover, so we made a conscious decision, right away to get the word out that not only were we going to rebuild our high school, that we were going to do it in one year’s time and we’re going to build it on the exact location where it stood previously.
“We were going to come back strong.”
Strong indeed, the concrete re-enforced underground wrestling room doubles as a storm shelter, with enough room to house the student body twice over.
Just before the storm, residents had passed a bond measure for a state-of-the-art 621-seat auditorium at the high school. The school gave back, by adding a 24/7 fitness center and auxiliary gym, for the community.
And even after all the loss, the district is growing again.
“It looks like a new suburb type of community so there’s all kinds of positives, but our enrollment, which in rural Iowa is rare has gone up by 68 students,” says Thompson. “In a district of right around 900 students, that’s significant. We’re proud of that.”
Being proud of what has been rebuilt here, along highway 57 is a common theme… and it spurred Bernard to run for mayor.
“How fast everybody dug in and took accountability and wanted to rebuild, it can’t make you feel more proud of a town.”
That proud feeling also tops Thompson’s best memories.
“For me, 20 some years in Aplington-Parkersburg, that year following the tornado was my favorite year, ever, in the communities and in education because the town which was close to begin with and so proud of what we had, became closer. Their work ethic was on display”
Parkersburg is certainly proud to be back, but hasn’t forgotten those lost, or the many that helped along the way.
“I can never talk to anybody without just thanking all the volunteers, all the church groups, all the civic groups, all the folks from throughout the united states that came here to help us,” Luhring says. “Parkersburg is Iowa’s town. We’re proud to say that. Parkersburg’s strong citizen’s and the support of Iowans, regular Iowan’s, have made Parkersburg successful”
There will always be reminders, the sign that the late Ed Thomas insisted would be left untouched, now overlooks the field that bears his name.
The crosses over the Methodist church that leaned, but never failed, still stand as they did immediately after the winds calmed.
And the trees. Well, they’ll take a while. But the people of Parkersburg have proven they’ll still be here when they do regrow.
In a resilient Parkersburg
“Everybody has pride here”
Brett McIntyre, Channel 13 News.