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Community marks 5-year anniversary of tornado

BY ALISON SULLIVAN | APRIL 13, 2011 7:20 AM

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Nine minutes.

That’s all it took for a storm to smash into Iowa City, damage more than 1,000 homes and dozens of businesses, and leave a city to stand united and rebuild in the years to come.

Today is the five-year anniversary of that moment. On April 13, 2006, the Iowa City community was hit by a disastrous F-2 tornado.

And though the city has rebuilt and people have moved on, members from across the community still recall their own experiences that spring evening.

“The sky was really ominous … a really weird color,” recalled Nathan White, a University of Iowa junior at the time. Then, the now 26-year-old lived across the street from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, 228 E. Court St., one of the buildings that was destroyed.

People from White’s apartment building made their way into the stairwell to escape the storm. Desperate for more space, someone opened the door to the garage and people flinched as a winter’s worth of sand and dirt flew into the space.



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He emerged just in time to see the steeple of the 130-year-old church topple to the ground.
Father Rudolph “Rudy” Juarez said church members were inside celebrating “Holy Thursday” shortly before the tornado hit.

After the storm passed, he anticipated a few misplaced windows. He looked up, expecting to see the roof. Instead his gaze lingered on the evening sky.

In the end, Juarez said, the church suffered $12 million in damage.

“Once you’ve had the experience and been through the experience, you never look at it quite the same way again,” he said.

Fire Chief Andy Rocca said response to the disaster went well in 2006, and the lessons they learned carried them through the 2008 floods and are with them to this day.

“It ensures a great a reminder going into the height of tornado season that severe weather can happen quickly and without warning,” he said.



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Since the storm, people have rebuilt.

St. Patrick’s dedicated its new facility in 2009.

The women of Alpha Chi Omega broke ground on their new home, in the same location as their destroyed sorority house, exactly one year after the storm.

And the Dairy Queen on South Riverside Drive was running again in three months.

Scott McWane, one of the owners of the Dairy Queen, still remembers the roar of the storm.

“It was a nice day, right before we got the message that there was a tornado,” McWane said. “But we felt kind of safe. You always hear the wives’ tales that [tornados] don’t cross rivers or anything.”

McWane and employees went to the basement less than a minute before the twister struck. When he came back up, his store was gone.

Not far from downtown, the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house, 828 E. Washington St., was blasted by the treacherous winds.

Leslie Prideaux, then president of the sorority, said she thought a friend was playing a prank on her — and not a funny one — when she received a call the house was destroyed.

But after talking with her house mother, it hit.

“That’s when I knew it’d really happened,” Prideaux said.

The destruction led her to a career she’d never anticipated, and she is now an assistant director of alumni programs at the UI.

“I realized from that point on, I wanted students to develop into leaders and when things like this happen — can be there to help and support,” she said.

Using data and observation weather models, forecasters knew the conditions were ripe for the severe weather that day.

“Yeah, that day was certainly a very warm day across eastern Iowam,” said Andy Ervin, senior meteorologist for the National Weather Service who made the decision to declare a tornado warning that day. “It was a fairly quick, small storm system moving across the state.”

The funnel that ripped through Iowa City was one of 15 other tornadoes that ravaged the area that day.

“No one really believes it because we get warnings all the time,” Iowa City community member, Britt Hill, 30, said.

That evening, Hill was walking back to her Bowery Street home and remembered seeing tangled wires and cars overturned from the storm.

“There was this loud crazy howling sound — like a giant, wild animal,” Hill said as her trek home turned into an anxious run.

The then dean of the College of Engineering, interim Provost P. Barry Butler, said he remembers many departments throughout the university working together to assist students.

“The one thing that was pretty amazing was how well the city of Iowa City responded,” he said.

Iowa City City Councilor Regenia Bailey remembered the tremendous swell of support.

“I grabbed a rake and work gloves, saw, and tools and hiked down to one of the affected residential neighborhoods and found a group of people helping someone who’s home had been damaged,” said current Mayor Matt Hayek, a year before he was elected to the city council.

Though the city has since recovered, debris has been swept from the landscape, businesses have reopened, and officials have come and gone, the lessons learned and unity gained has not faded, many said.

“In the end, we’ve gone from disaster to blessing after blessing after blessing,” Juarez said.


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