National Weather Service United States Department of Commerce

During the late afternoon and early evening of May 15, 1968, five tornadoes (two F1s, one F2, and two F5s) occurred in Iowa.  These tornadoes were part of a widespread outbreak (39 tornadoes) which impacted ten states.  In Iowa, the tornadoes caused 18 fatalities and 619 injuries.  Since this outbreak, no other tornadoes have produced this many deaths or injuries in Iowa. 

There have only been two other F5 or EF5 tornadoes in Iowa since 1968 (Jordan - June 13, 1976, and Parkersburg - May 25, 2008). 

 

Charles City Tornado

Picture taken by the Floyd County sheriff (L. L. Lane) at his spotter position on Highway 14.  It shows the tornado when it was 2 miles southwest of Charles City.

Charles City Tornado

Multiple vortices in the Charles City tornado produced spiral ground markings on a field 4 miles northeast of Charles City. (Picture: Larry Niebergall)

 

Summary

The May 15-16 1968 tornado outbreak was a significant and deadly tornado outbreak. It affected the states of: Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee. This outbreak produced 39 tornadoes from 3:28 PM CDT on May 15th through 2:50 AM CDT on May 16th. This included two F5 tornadoes in northeast Iowa. The table below provides a summary of the tornado intensities during this outbreak.

Confirmed Tornado Summary
State
Tornado Strength
Total
F0
F1
F2
F3
F4
F5
Arkansas
0
1
0
1
2
0
4
Illinois
0
1
0
3
0
0
4
Indiana
0
0
3
1
0
0
4
Iowa
0
2
1
0
0
2
5
Kansas
0
0
0
1*
0
0
1
Minnesota
1
3
1
0
0
0
5
Missouri
0
5
3
1*
0
0
9
Mississippi
0
2
1
0
0
0
3
Ohio
0
1
1
0
0
0
2
Tennessee
0
3
0
0
0
0
3
Overall
1
18
10
6
2
2
39
*Tornado crossed from Kansas into Missouri. Since it was the same tornado, it was only counted once in the overall numbers.
Fujita and Enhanced Fujita Scale

 

These tornadoes caused 72 fatalities and 1,203 injuries. It was one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in the United States since the 1960s and is one of the deadliest outbreaks in Arkansas history. The table below provides a break down by state of the fatalities and injuries during this outbreak.

 

Summary of Fatalities & Injuries
State Fatalities  Injuries
Arkansas 45 413
Illinois 8 135
Indiana 1 20
Iowa 18 619
Minnesota 0 3
Mississippi 0 7
Missouri 0 6
Totals 72 1203

Outbreak Details:
Map of the May 15-16, 1968 Tornado Outbreak

May 15-16, 1968 Tornado Occurrences
(Image compliments of the University of Michigan)

As an anomalously deep low pressure system moved east out of the Central and High Plains into the Mid and Upper Mississippi River Valley during the afternoon of May 15, 1968, severe weather developed quickly. The first tornado occurred in southeast Minnesota (Dakota and Rice counties) at 3:28 PM CDT. During the next three hours, another 18 tornadoes were reported across Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Missouri. This included two F5 tornadoes that hit central and eastern parts of the Iowa about 45 minutes apart during the late afternoon. These two tornadoes caused 18 fatalities and 618 injuries.

The first F5 tornado moved through five counties and 65 miles. It affected Charles City just before 5 PM CDT (4:47 PM) destroying much of the area. Damage figures were estimated up to $30 million in Charles City alone while $1.5 million of damage was recorded elsewhere. This tornado killed 13 and injured 462 others. The second F5 tornado affected Fayette County around 4:57 PM CDT. It damaged or destroyed nearly 1,000 homes. The hardest hit areas were Oelwein and Maynard where homes were completely swept away from their foundations. Five people were killed while 156 others were injured. Damage was estimated at $21 million. These were two of four F5 tornadoes across the United States in 1968, the others being in southeastern Ohio on April 23 and in southwestern Minnesota on June 13. The next and last official F5 tornado in Iowa took place in Jordan on June 13, 1976.

After the first tornadoes struck the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the tornadic activity developed further south and east during the evening hours of May 15th and early morning hours of May 16th. Several deadly tornadoes occurred in Arkansas. One of the tornadoes touched down west of Jonesboro before hitting the Craighead County city itself at around 10 PM CDT. The tornado which caught most residents by surprise since most of the warning systems failed and killed at least 34. One more person was killed in neighboring Jackson County. The tornado was the deadliest in Arkansas since an F4 tornado that affected White County on March 21, 1952 killing 50 people.

The same city was hit by another destructive tornado five years later killing at least three and injuring 250 others while leaving much more destruction throughout the city then the 1968 event. The damage figures were about $62 million in 1973 dollars. Another F4 tornado just to the west of Jonesboro killed 7 in Oil Trough in Independence County and 3 others were killed in Baxter County.

The activity ceased across the Deep South when the final tornadoes touched down across the Metropolitan Memphis area and northern Mississippi as well as in the Fort Wayne, Indiana area. 

List of Confirmed Tornadoes during this Outbreak:

List of Confirmed Tornadoes in the May 15-16, 1968 Outbreak*
Date
Time (CDT)
State
Counties
Locations
Fatalities**
Injuries**
Length of Path (Miles)
Width
of Path (Feet)
15
1528
MN
Dakota & Rice
4W Northfield to 1SE New Trier
2
0
3
15.4
1000
Funnel sighted on east side of Lake Mazaska at 3:28 PM CDT moving northeast. It touched down 4 miles west of Northfield at 3:42 PM CDT damaging 30 farms in southern Dakota County. The funnel lifted at 4:05 PM CDT one mile southeast of New Trier. It appeared to be 2 or 3 small funnels. One woman was injured as a barn collapsed 3 miles south of New Hampton. Hail and heavy rain was also observed in Rice and Dakota counties. There was an unofficial 7 inch rainfall report near Miesville.
15
1530
IL
Mason & Logan
Easton to east of Natrona
3
0
25
12.6
1800
Tornado left a 1/4 to 1/2 mile path from Easton to east of Natrona. Greatest concentration of damage at Natrona where most of 15 houses were destroyed beyond repair. Other buildings were damaged and several railroad box cars were overturned.
15
1545
KS & MO
Miami (KS) & Cass (MO)
2 NE of Louisburg KS to just south of Cleveland, MO
3
0
0
2.8
150
A tornado originating northeast of Louisburg, KS (Miami County) crossed into Cass County (Missouri). While in Kansas, the tornado caused damage on eight farms. In Missouri, it caused minor intermittent tree damage and destroyed a barn 2 miles south of Cleveland, Missouri. At this point, the tornado lifted and continued northeast through Peculiar, Missouri and Pleasant Hill areas generating numerous funnel cloud reports.
15
1610
IA
Franklin, Butler, Floyd, Chickasaw, Howard
3 NE Hansell (Franklin County) thru Charles City and Elma to 2S of Chester (Howard County)
5
13
462
62.1
1800
Tornado first sighted passing over a farmstead northeast of Hansell. It moved over the east edge of Aredale. Two funnels were simultaneously sighted at Aerdale. A funnel was observed to lift at Marble Rock. A continuous tornado path and associated tornado sightings were reported from east of Marble Rock to Charles City. The northeastward path of the tornado became northward as it swept through downtown Charles City at 4:47 PM CDT and then recurving as it left Charles City to move northeast to Elma, passing northeastward across Elma and thence moving north-northeast to Highway 9 and finally north and northwest as it dissipated south of Chester. The greatest losses were in Charles City where 13 persons were killed, 450 injured of which 76 were hospitalized. 337 homes were completely destroyed and 1565 families in Charles City were affected by the tornado. Losses were estimated up to 30 million dollars. In Elma 12 persons were injured, 3 hospitalized and damage estimated at 1.5 million dollars. Additionally many farmsteads and rural homes were damaged or destroyed. The tornado entered Elma at 5:25 PM CDT and continued to a point 14 miles north of Elma where its destructive path ended.
15
1630
MO
Johnson
Elm
2
0
2
5.2
600
A tornado apparently generated by the same parent storm which produced the tornado and funnel cloud activity in Cass County touched down 1 1/2 miles south and 2 3/4 miles west of Pittsville in northwest Johnson County. Barns and outbuildings were destroyed or damaged on seven farms. A home and service station were destroyed as the tornado crossed Highway 50 on the east edge of Elm (1 1/2 miles west of Pittsville). The tornado apparently lifted 1 mile east and 1 1/2 miles north of Pittsville. Isolated damage to farm buildings occurred at a point 5 miles north and 6 miles east of Pittsville, just south of the Johnson-Lafayette County line along the protected path of this storm, but it could not be determined if the damage was of tornadic origin.
15
1645
IN
Hendricks & Morgan
Hazlewood & Lake Bodona
2
0
5
8.8
30
Thirty homes were damaged in the Hazlewood area. One house trailer was demolished. The tornado moved eastward injuring one person in the Lake Bodona community. Twenty more homes were destroyed or excessively damaged. Golf ball size hail was reported in the Mooresville area about 5:00 PM CDT. Hail from marble to baseball size occurred earlier.
15
1645
MO
Ray
Richmond (northwest)
1
0
0
3.6
150
A small tornado destroyed or damaged barns and sheds on five farms along a path from a point 2 1/2 miles west and 1 1/2 miles north of Richmond to a point 4 miles north and 1 1/2 miles west. The tornado was followed by gold ball size hail.
15
1657
IA
Fayette
Oelwein to Maynard
5
5
156
13.1
1500
The tornado passed through downtown Oelwein and moved north-northeast to Maynard moving through the town in a northward direction. It ended about 5 miles north-northeast of Maynard. Of the 156 injuries, 34 were hospitalized. 965 families were affected by the tornado. Loss estimates ranged upward to 21 million dollars. Most of which occurred in Oelwein.
15
1658
IA
Fayette
Jackson Junction
1
0
0
0.3
900
Brief tornado touch down
15
1700
IL
DeWitt
Waynesville to Wapello & Farmer City
1
4
50
25.4
3000
Tornado struck just east of Waynesville, reached Wapello about 5:15 PM CDT and continued east, apparently lifting before reaching Farmer City where damage was extensive but mostly high level, upper portions of trees and houses. Timing and direction of travel (directly west to east) indicates this tornado was from the same severe thunderstorm as the one that moved through Mason and Logan counties, with considerable damage en route between touchdowns. Major wind damage indicates unusually high velocity winds on either side of tornado with major damage path often two to three miles wide. Nearly 100 steel towers on three electric transmission lines were destroyed.
15
1700
MN
Freeborn
5 S of Oakland
0
0
0
0.1
30
Small tornado at 5:00 PM CDT dipped within 25 feet of the ground 5 miles south of Oakland causing minor damage. 60-70 mph unofficial winds west of Austin destroyed a display mobile home at 5:36 PM CDT. Winds after 4:00 PM CDT in eastern Freeborn and Mower counties damaged numerous barns, corn cribs, outbuildings, and 550 telephones were out of service. At 5:30 PM CDT, half inch diameter hail was reported between Emmons and south of Albert Lea, and Austin.
15
1700
MO
Johnson & Lafayette
1 W of Lafayettville to 1.5 NE of Concordia
2
0
0
12.3
150
A storm paralleling the track of tornado producing storm that moved through Elm, but displaced 4 miles to the southeast, produced a small tornado which touched down briefly to damage buildings on a farm 1 mile west of Lafayetteville in north central Johnson County. The next damage occurred 5 1/4 miles to the northeast on a farm 1 mile south of the Johnson/Lafayette County line and 3 miles east of Highway 13. Minor damage to barns, outbuildings and timber occurred along a narrow skipping path from a point on the county line 4 miles south and 4 west of Concordia, across the southeast edge of Concordia to a point 1 mile east and 1 1/2 miles north.
15
1700
MO
Lafayette & Saline
3 S of Alma to Malta Bend
1
0
0
4.9
150
Along an extension of the damage track from Louisburg, KS through Elm, MO, a series of brief touchdowns occurred along a skipping path beginning on the east side of Missouri Highway 23 three miles south of Alma where 4 farms sustained outbuilding damage. The next significant damage occurred from a half mile south Blackburn across the southeast portion of Blackburn to a farm 1 mile east and 3/4 mile north. The funnel cloud remained aloft for the next seven miles and then touched down again on the south and east portions of Malta Bend causing principally roof and tree damage and flipping over a car after its occupant had abandoned it on sighting the approaching tornado.
15
1707
MN
Dodge
7 SW of Dodge Center to 5 SW of Dodge Center
1
0
0
7.8
60
Funnel was sighted 1 mile northeast of Blooming Prairie and touched down 7 miles southwest of Dodge Center at 4:17 PM and continued northeast for 2 miles. Damage was reported to outbuildings on 3 farms. Unofficial winds gusted up 60 mph. These winds did considerable damage in Blooming Prairie, Hayfield, Dodge Center, Kasson, and Mantorville areas. The wall of a cement block building under construction was blown over. This damaged several cars. 1280 turkeys were killed. Hail observed: golf ball at 5 PM CDT in Dodge Center; 3/4 inch diameter hail at 4:37 PM CDT and golf ball at 4:53 PM CDT at Blooming Prairie, and 1 3/4 inch diameter hail three miles northeast of Blooming Prairie.
15
1740
MN
Steele & Dodge
1/2 NE of Pratt to 2 W of Skyburg
1
0
0
16.6
80
Tornado touched down at 5:40 PM CDT a half miles northeast of Pratt and continued northeasterly to 2 miles west of Skyburg. It damaged outbuildings on 7 farms. From the damage pattern, it appeared to be two tornadoes. Golf ball size hail observed in Owatonna at 5:05 PM CDT.
15
1745
IA
Audubon
Audubon
1
0
1
2
750
Two farmsteads damaged.
15
1800
MO
Jasper
Near Alba
1
0
3
2.5
150
A tornado overturned a parked car in mid air slightly injuring its three occupants on Route D 1 1/2 miles south of Alba and then continued northeastward to destroy or damage buildings and timber on three farms along a 2 mile path winding on Rote D, 1 mile south and 2 miles east of Alba.
15
1815
OH
Wayne
Wooster Area
1
0
0
1
1100
A tornado touched ground on the west side of State Route 302 about 3 miles west northwest of Wooster. Eye witnesses saw the tornado just after it demolished a barn and moved eastward across Route 302 about 500 feet in front of their cars. The storm then moved across an open field before tearing off the roof of another barn. Witnesses heard a roar similar to a large jet plane getting ready to "take off". Heavy rain followed the storm. Golf ball size hail was reported in Wooster.
15
1815
IA
Howard & Winneshiek
Southeast Howard to West Central Winneshiek County
2
0
0
4.7
750
Tornado moved north northeast.
15
1845
MN
Fillmore & Houston
2 SE of Canton to 3 NW of Spring Grove
1
0
0
8.4
230
At 6:45 PM CDT, a tornado touched down 2 miles southeast of Canton damaging 3 farms and a church as it moved northeastward to 3 miles northwest of Spring Grove.
15
1850
IL
Iroquois
 East of Milford
3
0
0
7.1
1200
Several homes and buildings destroyed or damaged. Twenty five piggy-back loaded freight cars were blown off tracks. Tornado was sighted and clearly described by witnesses. Only minor injuries reported.
15
1900
OH
Wayne
Wooster Area
2
0
0
1
1320
A man reported watching a funnel cloud that appeared to be momentarily stationary while the funnel "reached" for the ground. The tornado struck the ground about 8 miles east of Wooster (0.3 mile south of the junction of U.S. 30 and County Road 84 on 84) where it demolished a barn and several other farm buildings before moving east northeast through a woods. Heavy rain followed the tornado and there were several reports of marble size hail in the area.
15
1930
AR
Baxter
Mountain Home
3
3
25
7.3
600
Twenty residences were completely destroyed and 50 damaged. Twelve trailers were destroyed and 15 sustained major damage. There was major damage to four businesses. Boats on Lake Norfolk were damaged as were several resorts and boat docks. Storm struck first at approximately 6:30 PM three miles north of Mountain Home then it moved east and crossed Lake Norfolk just north of Highway 62 and 101 ferries striking the east shore near the community of Henderson. The funnel was seen and heard in the vicinity by several.
15
2015
AR
Fulton
Viola and Salem
1
0
0
0.1
30
Two trailers were hit and overturned one mile east of Viola. Roof of recreation hall and walls damaged in same area area on Route 62. Roof blown off Viola school and several homes in Viola damaged. Further to the east, wind damage occurred near Camp (Fulton County) where there was heavy timber damage.
15
2040
MO
Jefferson
Fletcher (North)
1
0
0
5.9
300
A tornado first touched down in a wooded area near the intersection of Route WW and the Brown Ford Road or 2 miles east of the Junction of Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin Counties (3 miles north and 1/2 mile west of Fletcher). Intermittent damage occurred to heavily timbered areas and to 4 farms to a point just east of the intersection of Route C and the Reynolds Creek Road (5 miles west and a half north of Hillsboro).
15
2136
AR
Independence
Oil Trough
4
7
24
0.3
900
1/2 to 2/3rds of Oil Trough destroyed. Few houses escaped damage. Roof and wall damage to high school. Implement company destroyed. Sixty people were in the Church of Christ when the church building exploded with tornado contact and only 1 injured. Dozen or more cars damaged. Post office and grocery destroyed. $750,000 damage. Tornado moved west-southwest to east-northeast.
15
2145
IL
St. Clair
Freeburg
3
4
60
2
600
Major tornado damage at Freeburg. Dead and most of injured were in a completely destroyed trailer court. Homes and other buildings badly destroyed.
15
2145
AR
Jackson, Craighead, & Mississippi
Tuckerman, Jonesboro, & Manila
4
35
364
20.9
750
Six houses destroyed and 15 partially damaged along with some businesses in the south end of Tuckerman. This tornado then moved about 30 mph from Tuckerman to Jonesboro. The tornado touched down just outside of Valley View, followed Highway 39 into Jonesboro, smashed into Fairview and Nettleton and continued into Needham. Nettleton High School was almost completely destroyed. At least 7 cars on one stretch of highway were hurled across a nearby railway and some cars were wrapped around trees killing occupants. 164 homes were destroyed. Crops (mostly cotton) were damaged with heavy rain accompanying the tornado. The tornado was not on the ground between Jonesboro and Manila. However the severe thunderstorm did produce some minor wind in Craighead County. The tornado did touch down again in Manila where it destroyed in the downtown area (three blocks of buildings). Twelve buildings were totally destroyed.
15
2150
MO
Butler
3 SSW of Neelyville
2
0
1
0.2
60
A tornado touched down briefly along U.S. 67 three miles south southwest of Neelyville destroying two buildings, injuring one person, and flipping a parked truck on top of a station wagon.
15
2220
MO
Dunklin
Campbell
1
0
0
1.5
50
A tornado touched down in a park on the west edge of Campbell and then was observed to lift slightly to pass over the business district causing only minor tree top damage and returned to ground level on a farm just northeast of the city.
15
2251
IN
Tippecanoe
NW Lafayette
2
0
0
0.1
30
Two small buildings were destroyed about 5 miles northwest of Lafayette.
15
2330
IN
Clinton
Beard
2
0
0
0.1
30
Extensive damage occurred on two farms, at different hours on the night of May 15-16. One barn was destroyed and another barn was damaged with a silo toppled. Sixteen head of cattle were lost. Farm equipment was damaged and windows broken in dwelling. Tornadic action late of the 15th were followed by damaging winds in the immediate vicinity early of the 16th (2:30 AM).
16
0020
TN
Shelby
20 S of Millington Naval Air Station
1
0
0
0.1
30
Tornado touched down 20 miles south of Millington Naval Air Station. No damage reported.
16
0102
IN
Wabash, Huntington, & Allen
3 S of Wabash through Andrews and Huntington to Allen
3
1
15
50.3
30
One woman killed when her mobile home was blown across a highway and demolished near Wabash. Twelve other trailer homes were destroyed and 12 persons injured. Three air craft were damaged at the Wabash Airport with an estimated $60,000 loss. State Police near Andrews reported 3 personal injuries and 4 houses blown down. Several houses were destroyed and damaged just west of Huntington. Also a resident reported a touch down of the tornado six miles east of Huntington, and then apparently intermittent touch downs in a path continuing northeastward. Twenty homes were extensively damaged and 20 barns were either destroyed or damaged. Fifteen homes were damaged in New Haven. Flash flooding from sudden downpour of rain accompanying this storm was reported to be the worst in this area in 25 years. Telephone company cables and poles broken and knocked down from one half mile south of Andrews in a northeasterly direction to Huntington. Golf ball size hail and 100 mile an hour winds were reported.
16
0120
MS
DeSoto
Hernando
2
0
7
5.2
300 
Storm moved from west southwest to east northeast. During rainy weather, two funnels appeared, one reached the ground. Tornado hop skipped only hitting sparsely parts first. One and a half miles south of Hernando, the tornado severely damaged two unoccupied concrete block houses, destroyed an Antique shop (crushing the building that housed it) and a farm implement company, damaged two homes, destroyed a garage, chicken house with 185 chickens, unroofed a barn, and moved a small house several yards off of its foundation. The tornado then destroyed another two homes, many trees were uprooted, and telephone service in the area was disrupted by broken poles. The storm lifted traveled about 2 miles then wrecked a nearby home where a man received severe cuts and abrasions on his head. It then went northwest across a highway where it unroofed a house. Further to the east, a house trailer was reported blown over, and some roof damage to a home. All across the countryside, numerous trees, and telephone and electric power poles were blown down. Six people were reported bruised by debris.
16
0140
MS
Tate
Independence
1
0
0
0.1
30 
Public reported a tornado uprooted numerous trees in Independence. The sheriff office estimated the damage at $500.
16
0215
TN
Shelby
13 NNW of Memphis to just east of the Millington Naval Air Station
1
0
0
0.1
30
A tornado skipped across portions of Shelby County as it moved in a northeasterly direction from 13 miles north northwest of Memphis, to just east of the Millington Naval Air Station (25 miles northeast of Memphis). The path was across open country, and no damage was reported.
16
0230
MS
Marshall
25 SE of Memphis
1
0
0
0.1
30
Tornado touched down on Highway 78 about 25 miles southeast of Memphis and it seemed to follow the highway for a short distance. One truck was pushed off the road, another jackknifed, and two others were involved.
16
0250
TN
Shelby
Near Germantown
1
0
0
0.1
30
A tornado is suspected to have appeared briefly, near Germantown (8 miles east of Memphis). Minor wind damage to trees and power lines. Heavy rain of 1 to 2 inches, to as much as 3 inches were reported from scattered thunderstorms in western parts of the state.
* The data in this table came from Storm Data, Significant Tornadoes--1680-1991 by Thomas P. Grazulis and the TornadoHistoryProject.com
** Injuries and Deaths are for the entire tornado track.

Weather Conditions

On May 14th, an occluded front moved east through the Upper Mississippi River Valley. This front stalled out across central Iowa and southern Wisconsin. A surface low developed along the tail end of this front across northeast Colorado and it moved east northeast into eastern Nebraska by 6 AM CDT on May 15th (Figure 1). Looking aloft, there was a slow moving anomalously deep trough (it was most noticeable at 850 mb where it was 2 to 3 standard deviations below normal across the eastern Dakotas and eastern Nebraska) located across the central and northern Plains.

 

Surface Weather Map at 6 AM CDT on May 15, 1968 850 mb Height Anomalies at 7 AM CDT on May 15, 1968
Figure 1:  Surface Map at 6 AM CDT on May 15, 1968.  (This image was compliments of NOAA Central Library U.S. Daily Weather Maps Project.) Figure 2:  850 mb (approximately 5,000 feet above ground) height anomalies at 7 AM CDT.  The area in darker blue indicates that these heights were 2 to 3 standard deviations below normal. (This image was compliments of the Penn State Meteorology Department's NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Mapper)

The morning soundings on May 15th at both Omaha, Nebraska (Figure 3) and Topeka, Kansas (Figure 4) (both upper air sites located in the warm sector of this low pressure system and this would be the air mass located across Iowa later in the day) showed what meteorologists call a "loaded gun" sounding. This is where the atmosphere below is moist and if it is allowed to rise, it would be warmer than the air mass aloft (which is typically cooler and much drier). At the "interface" between these two layers, there is a layer of warm air (this typically called a "cap") which prevents the instability from being released. This cap allows the lowest layers of the atmosphere to warm (due to either diurnal heating or a warmer air mass moving into the region) and for the moisture to possibly increase (either by plant evapotranspiration or by being moved into the region by the low level winds). If the air mass above the cap remains cool and dry, the instability will continue to progressively increase. The energy from this potentially explosive atmosphere can only be released if the cap is eliminated by either this warm layer cooling (either by cooler air moving in aloft or this layer being lifted by a strong low pressure system) or the surface temperature has become warmer than the cap.

Omaha, NE Upper Air Sounding at 6 AM CDT on May 15, 1968 Topeka, KS Upper Air Sounding at 6 AM CDT on May 15, 1968
Figure 3: Omaha, NE Upper Air Sounding at 7 AM CDT on May 15, 1968. (image compliments of Greg Carbin at the NCEP Storm Prediction Center.) Figure 4:  Topeka, KS Upper Air Sounding at 7 AM CDT on May 15, 1968. (image compliments of Greg Carbin at the NCEP Storm Prediction Center.)

In the case of May 15th, the lift continued to progressively increase during the afternoon as the deepening upper level trough moved slowly east into the mid and upper Mississippi River Valley. By 7 PM CDT, the 850 mb trough (Figure 5) was a very impressive 3 to 4 standard deviations below normal and the 700 mb (Figure 6) and 500 mb (Figure 7) troughs were 2 to 3 standard deviations below normal. This lift slowly cooled the cap and eventually all of the instability that had built through the morning and early afternoon was able to be released through the rapid development of thunderstorms.

 

850 mb Height Anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968 700 mb Height Anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968 500 mb Height Anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968
Figure 5: 850 mb (approximately 5,000 feet above ground) height anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968. The area in dark blue indicates that these heights were 3 to 4 standard deviations below normal. (image compliments of the Penn State Meteorology Department's NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Mapper) Figure 6: 700 mb (approximately 10,000 feet above ground) height anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968. The area in darker blue indicates that these heights were 2 to 3 standard deviations below normal. (image compliments of the Penn State Meteorology Department's NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Mapper) Figure 7: 500 mb (approximately 18,000 feet above ground) height anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968. The area in darker blue indicates that these heights were 2 to 3 standard deviations below normal. (image compliments of the Penn State Meteorology Department's NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Mapper)

With the upper level system continuing to intensify, this allowed the surface low to continue to deepen. This enhanced the southerly winds from the Gulf of Mexico northward to Iowa. These winds brought an unusually warm and moist air mass northward into Iowa and southeast Minnesota. By 3 PM CDT, the temperatures across Iowa were in the lower and mid 80s (Figure 8). This is about 10 to 15 degrees above normal. In addition, the surface dew points were in the mid 60s. These dew points are typically seen in mid June in northeast Iowa. It was shortly after this time that the thunderstorms quickly started to develop across southeast Minnesota and northeast Iowa.

 

Surface Map at 3 PM CDT on May 15, 1968
Figure 8: Surface map at 3 PM CDT on May 15, 1968. (image was compliments of Greg Carbin at the NCEP Storm Prediction Center.)

Besides instability, thunderstorms need sufficient wind shear aloft (simply winds either from different directions aloft or wind speeds progressively increasing with height) to become severe. This wind shear allows the thunderstorm an opportunity to organize itself such that the moist and unstable feed of air is unimpeded from the cooler and more stable air that the thunderstorm generates. Although the wind shear across the region was not that abnormally strong, there was a surface trough (indicated by the dashed magenta line which extended from just west of Twin Cities southeast into central Illinois in Figure 8) which helped to increase the low level shear and focused the low level moisture.

As the thunderstorms encountered this surface trough, they likely ingested the strong low level shear and very unstable air. In addition, the intense lift associated with the very deep upper level trough aloft likely intensified this rotating updraft. Like an ice skater pulling in her or his arms, the rotation of the tornado will spin faster and faster. The combination of these events likely resulted in the development of the 29 tornadoes across Illinois (4), Indiana (4), Iowa, (5), Minnesota (5), Kansas (1 - this tornado quickly moved into Missouri), Missouri (9), and Ohio (2). This included two F5 tornadoes which moved through the Charles City, Maynard, and Oelwein in northeast Iowa.

Further to the south and southeast, this anomalously deep upper level trough produced unusually strong shear for this time of year across the Lower Mississippi and Tennessee River Valleys. This shear led to the development of another ten tornadoes across Arkansas (4), Mississippi (3), and Tennessee (3) from the evening of May 15th through the early morning hours of May 16th. The 850 mb strongest shear anomaly (Figure 9) corresponded well with the two F4 tornadoes that developed across Arkansas.

 

850 mb wind anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968
Figure 9: 850 mb (approximately 5,000 feet above ground) wind shear anomalies at 7 PM CDT on May 15, 1968. The area in orange indicates that these wind shear values were 2 to 3 standard deviations above normal. (image compliments of the Penn State Meteorology Department's NCEP/NCAR Reanalysis Mapper)

May 15, 1968 Northeast Iowa Tornadoes Photos

Damage Pictures from the Charles City Tornado: (A special thanks to Jeff Sisson who provided us with the pictures below)

 

Aerial view of the Charles City, IA tornado's damage Just south of the Cedar River looking north in Charles City, IA The north end of Charles City just a few blocks West of The Oliver Plant The Hauser Funeral Home at the corner of Blunt and Milwaukee in Charles City, IA
Aerial view of the tornado's damage Just south of the Cedar River looking north The north end of Charles City just a few blocks West of The Oliver Plant The Hauser Funeral Home at the corner of Blunt and Milwaukee
Gibson's Department Store at the southeast corner of Blunt and Main in Charles City, IA McKinley School Building in Charles City, IA The north end of Charles City, IA The 700 block of Main Street in Charles City, IA looking south
Gibson's Department Store at the southeast corner of Blunt and Main McKinley School Building The north end of Charles City The 700 block of Main Street looking south 
Iowa Public Service Office across from Central Park in Charles City, IA The First Baptist Church on the northeast corner of Clark and Milwaukee in Charles City, IA The First Baptist Church in Charles City, IA Corner of 8th and Hildreth in Charles City, IA
Iowa Public Service Office across from Central Park  The First Baptist Church on the northeast corner of Clark and Milwaukee  The First Baptist Church  Corner of 8th and Hildreth 
Jacobs Elevator in Charles City, IA First Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Wisconsin and Kelly in Charles City, IA The Manual Arts Building taken from Wisconsin Street in Charles City, IA First Christian Church on Wisconsin Street in Charles City, IA
Jacobs Elevator First Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Wisconsin and Kelly The Manual Arts Building taken from Wisconsin Street  First Christian Church on Wisconsin Street 
Cedar Terrace South near Brantingham Bridge in Charles City, IA St. Charles Hotel northwest corner of Wisconsin and Blunt in Charles City, IA Destroyed cars at Lions Field in Charles City, IA Car destroyed by falling debris in Charles City, IA
Cedar Terrace South near Brantingham Bridge  St. Charles Hotel northwest corner of Wisconsin and Blunt  Destroyed cars at Lions Field Car destroyed by falling debris 
McKinley School left, Salsbury Labs right from Brantingham Bridge in Charles City, IA South end of Charles City, IA where tornado first struck South side of Cedar River where tornado crossed into Charles City, IA Taken just west of the Oliver Tractor Plant in Charles City, IA
McKinley School left, Salsbury Labs right from Brantingham Bridge  South end of town where tornado first struck  South side of Cedar River where tornado crossed  Taken just west of the Oliver Tractor Plant
Typical scene on the north end of Charles City, IA      
Typical scene on the north end of town       

 


Below are additional damage from the Charles City Tornado damage taken by Brad Howell.  He took these photos on May 18, 1968. 

 

Smashed cars were held here at Lions Field for the insurance companies. Smashed cars were held here at Lions Field for the insurance companies. Smashed cars were held here at Lions Field for the insurance companies. This is where my brother Rick was during the tornado. Looking southwest from the intersection of Main and 11th street.
Smashed cars were held here at Lions Field for the insurance companies. Smashed cars were held here at Lions Field for the insurance companies. Smashed cars were held here at Lions Field for the insurance companies. This is where my brother Rick was during the tornado. Looking southwest from the intersection of Main and 11th street.
This is looking northeast from Riverside Drive on the north side of the river. A view of the east side of Cedar Street looking southeast in the 500 block. Looking North on Riverside between Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Looking southeast at the back of what is left of the IGA store near Clark and Wisconsin.
This is looking northeast from Riverside Drive on the north side of the river. A view of the east side of Cedar Street looking southeast in the 500 block. Looking North on Riverside between Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Looking southeast at the back of what is left of the IGA store near Clark and Wisconsin.
Looking southeast from Main Street at Gibson's Discount Store corner of Blunt. Looking south in the 700 block of Jackson Street. Kelly and Main looking west on the south side of Central park. Looking north from Kelly and Milwaukee.
Looking north from Kelly and Milwaukee. Looking southeast from Main Street at Gibson's Discount Store corner of Blunt. Looking south in the 700 block of Jackson Street. Kelly and Main looking west on the south side of Central Park.
Looking south in the 500 block of north Jackson Street Looking west toward Main Street from apartment 49 in Cedar Terrace complex. Salisbury building is on the far left. This is the 1st building counting from southwest clockwise on Kneisel Circle looking northeast at the southwest side of the quadruplex apartment. I was in the northeast side apartment 49. This is what was left of the gas station on the south side of Gilbert Street at Hildreth Looking south.
Looking south in the 500 block of north Jackson Street Looking west toward Main Street from apartment 49 in Cedar Terrace complex. Salisbury building is on the far left. This is the 1st building counting from southwest clockwise on Kneisel Circle looking northeast at the southwest side of the quadruplex apartment. I was in the northeast side apartment 49. This is what was left of the gas station on the south side of Gilbert Street at Hildreth Looking south.
Looking south from Gilbert at gas station on corner of Hildreth. This was directly across the street south from Cedar Terrace. Looking straight north from Clark near Milwaukee at the First Methodist Church. The tractor dealership on the north end of town. A gas station near McKinley School.
Looking south from Gilbert at gas station on corner of Hildreth. This was directly across the street south from Cedar Terrace. Looking straight north from Clark near Milwaukee at the First Methodist Church. The tractor dealership on the north end of town. A gas station near McKinley School.
Looking north from Blunt at Milwaukee. Buildings in 500 block of north Wisconsin looking west toward Main. Looking south from Johnson and Charles Street at our house at 100 Charles Street. Our house was unaffected by the tornado.  
Looking north from Blunt at Milwaukee. Buildings in 500 block of north Wisconsin looking west toward Main. Looking south from Johnson and Charles Street at our house at 100 Charles Street. Our house was unaffected by the tornado.  

Iowa Tornadoes In The Outbreak

During the late afternoon and early evening of May 15, 1968, five tornadoes (two F1s, one F2, and two F5s) occurred in Iowa. These tornadoes were part of the May 15-16, 1968 outbreak (39 tornadoes) which affected ten states (Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee). The tornadoes in Iowa caused 18 fatalities (13 in Charles City, 2 in Oelwein, and 2 in Maynard) and 619 injuries (450 in Charles City, 156 in Oelwein & Maynard, 12 in Elma, and 1 in Audubon).

On May 24, 1968, Iowa Governor Harold Hughes requested just over two million dollars ($2,044,000) in supplemental federal assistance to repair damage to public facilities resulting from the tornadoes in and near the communities of Charles City and Oelwein. On May 29, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the state of Iowa as a disaster area.

A detailed description of each Iowa tornado on May 15, 1968 is listed below:

1) Charles City Tornado: (Franklin, Butler, Floyd, Chickasaw, Howard Counties):

The first tornado of the afternoon was first sighted passing over a farmstead northeast of Hansell around 4:10 PM CDT. The tornado moved through the eastern edge of Aredale where two tornadoes were seen simultaneously.  Farms in Aredale area were reported heavily damaged by the tornadoes, including the farmsteads of Lawrence McKinney, Lloyd Bailey, Roger Landers and Harry Brocka.

Everything except the house and one other building on the Bailey farm about a mile south of Aerdale was reported blown across the road into Alfred McWilliams field. Windows in the house were broken, and boards and splinters were driven into the trees on the Bailey farm.

On the McKinney farm about a quarter mile east of Aredale, most of the buildings were destroyed — "twisted every which way". A large tree fell on the house, and power lines were down.  Mrs. McKinney and her sister Miss Madonna Day were both treated for shock at their residence on the following day.

Debris from the Landers farm about five miles northeast Aredale was discovered half a mile away, and the outbuildings were flung about the farmyard.

The Brocka farm about 2 miles southwest of Aredale reported damaged buildings and uprooted trees.

The tornado was observed to lift briefly at Marble Rock and then a continuous tornado path and associated tornado sightings were reported from east of Marble Rock to Charles City.

The tornado grew larger and more intense as it approached Charles City, striking the city at approximately 4:50 PM CDT. The huge tornado (approximately a half mile wide) passed directly through town from south to north. The tornado destroyed, 372 homes and 58 businesses, 188 homes and 90 businesses sustained major damage, and 356 homes and 46 businesses sustained minor damage. Eight churches, 3 schools were damaged or destroyed, the police station was heavily damaged, and 1,250 vehicles were destroyed. About 60 percent of the city was damaged by the tornado. Damage was estimated up to $30 million.

Debris from the Charles City was found in LeRoy, MN (part of a Blooms Electric sign - nearly 35 miles to the north); St. Charles, MN (a check from the Floyd County Treasurer's office - approximately 75 miles away); and Winona, MN (a receipt from a Service Station - about 80 miles away). A total of 1,565 families were affected by the tornado. Ironically, the tornado damaged all of the churches in town, but left the bars standing. Four hundred and fifty people were injured. Of these injured, 76 people required hospitalization. The following thirteen people were killed by the tornado in Charles City:

  1. Mrs. Ray (Sadie) Chambers
  2. Virval Dawson
  3. May Gault
  4. Marie Greenless
  5. Harry Hall
  6. John Kneisel
  7. Mrs. John (Minnie) Kneisel
  8. Mrs. LeLane (Florine) Leach
  9. Murray Loomer
  10. Arthur Jacobs
  11. August Mertin
  12. Robert Stotts
  13. Mrs. Charles (Lela) Wolff

Charles City Tornado Track


Charles City Tornado Track

Track of Tornado through Charles City

Track of the Tornado through
Charles City, IA

James Johnson, administrator of Floyd County hospital in Charles City, said 200 to 300 persons were treated at the hospital, which had a capacity of 89. Only 39 of the hospital's beds were empty when the tornado struck and Johnson said the 39 most seriously injured persons used them.

Not more than 20 minutes after the tornado hit Charles City, looting became a problem.  It did not end until the Charles City authorities sealed off the downtown area.

The tornado continued to the northeast hitting Elma at 5:25 PM CDT, where it caused another $1.5 million in damage.  In Elma, 12 persons were injured and 3 hospitalized. Within town in an area about four by six blocks on the west side, virtually every tree was either stripped of branches or downed. Many streets were blocked by the trees. Scarcely a home or building in the area escaped damage. An unidentified woman insisted she saw three funnels converging on the town.

The storm also inflicted heavy damage in an area about six miles in both directions southwest and northeast of Elma. Farms especially hard hit in the area included: Mrs. Ludwina Zimetz, Charles McGee, Ed O'Brien, Earl Kelly, Larry Vovits, Don Fairchild, and Walter Fair. Witnesses in the country said the storm was accompanied by heavy hail which added its own severe destruction.

From Elma the tornado turned to the north and dissipated south of Chester, 4 miles south of the Minnesota border. 

The tornado was on the ground for 65 miles, reaching a width of 400 yards.

2) Oelwein/Maynard Tornado (Fayette County):

At 4:57 PM CDT, another F5 tornado touched down one mile southwest of Oelwein. The warning sirens sounded for only 15 seconds before power failed. The tornado moved in a northward direction up Oelwein's main business street (North and South Frederick) and a parallel street a block east (First Avenue Southeast). It destroyed 68 homes. Another 132 homes sustained major damage and 600 sustained less damage. Every business in the district suffered damage including 51 that were destroyed. Two churches, an elementary school, and the middle school were destroyed. Some persons said that they saw more than one tornado.

This tornado moved north through the western part of Maynard.  About five square blocks were virtually leveled.  More than 25 houses and the new $120,000 Lutheran church were destroyed.

Farms in an area a mile wide and extending from Oelwein to Twin Bridges State Park north of Maynard were heavily damaged by the tornado. Damage ranged from total destruction to minor. The path of the tornado was easy to follow after it left Oelwein and traveled northeast until it hit Maynard and then turned almost straight north, traveled about five miles before lifting, near the park.

The farm homes of Raymond Lundry and Peter Greco, which are less than a quarter of a mile apart, were among the worst hit. The two farms, lay about a mile south of Maynard, and were a complete loss. Lundry lost 76 pigs, six head of cattle were killed and another six were injured. Greco lost seven heads of livestock plus rabbits and chickens.

Other farms wiped out by the tornado included Herbert Malven and Art Andrew. In both cases, the house was the only building left standing. Farms receiving severe damage included Kenny Bancke, Louis Gosse, Alvin Teague, Harold Teague, W. L. Halstead, Lester Warnke, G. L. Hanson, Herman Peterman and Don Wilharm.  Among those less severly damaged were the farms of Ruben Blake, George Winkler, John Stolka, Harold Ehlers, Howard Gushing, Ervin Saddler, Donald Buxton, Deiter Erdelt, Lester Warnke, and Larry Lundry.  These losses ranged from one to seven buildings destroyed and included cattle which were injured or killed.  The farms of Ralph Gilmer, Bob Henniges, Harry Reay, Louis Burk and Delmer Sorgc also received heavy damage.  Only one person (Mrs. Lucille Taylor) on the farms had  injuries serious enough to require hospitalization.

This tornado affected 965 families. Of the 156 injuries, 34 were hospitalized. Loss estimates ranged upward to 21 million dollars. Most of which occurred in Oelwein. the following four people were killed by this tornado:

Oelwein Fatality:

  1. Grace Damon - She had went to a shelter and then realized that she had forgotten her purse. She went up to retrieve it. She was unable to get back to shelter before the tornado had hit her apartment building. A chimney fell on her. She called for help and she was rescued, but she died shortly later from internal bleeding and injuries. She was 55 years old.
  2. Albert E. Heaton - He was 89 years old and died of a heart attack.

Maynard Fatalities:

  1. Galena Kelly - She was 3 years old and the daughter of Borden and Geraldine Kelly
  2. Mrs. Louis Ponsor - She was 77 years old and died in a trailer. 
3) Jackson Junction Tornado: (Fayette County)

At 4:58 PM CDT, a brief F1 tornado touched down at Jackson Junction.

4) Audubon Tornado: (Audubon County) 
At 5:45 PM CDT, a F2 tornado damaged two farmsteads in Audubon. This tornado injured one person.
5) Cresco Tornado: (Howard & Winneshiek)
At 6:15 PM CDT, A concrete block garage and barns were destroyed. A home was also unroofed. This tornado tracked north-northeast. six miles

Newspaper Accounts

Special thanks to NewspaperARCHIVE.com for allowing us access to their site and the opportunity to provide pdfs of the newspapers on this page. Without their help, we would not have been able to provide such a thorough coverage of the newspaper accounts of these historic tornadoes and some recovery efforts that took place.

Date
Newspaper
Pages
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 16, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Lime Springs Herald
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 17, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 18, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 19, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 20, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 21, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 22, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Green Recorder
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Progress Review
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 23, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Lime Springs Herald
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 24, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 25, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 26, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 27, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 28, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 29, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Green Recorder
 
 
 
 
 
  Iowa City Press Citizen
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
  Progress Review
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
                       
May 30, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Lime Springs Herald
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
May 31, 1968 Cedar Rapids Gazette
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  Oelwein Daily Register
 
 
 
 
 
 
                       
May 15, 2008 Charles City Press Forever Changed:  Charles City Remembers the Tornado of 1968 Supplement (7.4 MB) - 28 pages        

Personal Accounts

If you have your own stories of the Charles City, Maynard, and Oelwein F5 tornadoes of May 15, 1968, and/or their aftermath and would like them recorded on this webpage, please send them to the National Weather Service via e-mail at Jeff.Boyne@noaa.gov or via regular mail at N2788 County Rd. FA, La Crosse, WI 54601-3038. We appreciate your help and your time in commemorating this remarkable, but tragic event. We also would like to thank The Charles City Press for allowing us to include some of the accounts that came into their 1968 Charles City Tornado blog.

For more information, try the Facebook page for the Charles City, IA tornado.

Charles City Maynard Oelwein

Anonymous
Tim Anderson
Al Bode
Cheryl Begley
Teresa Carr
Garold Casler
Dave DeLong
Margaret (Garner) Dunston
Dixie Fox
Barbara Fuls
Karla (Schmitt) Goddard
Lynn Graff
Jeff Heller
Jim Hilgendorf
Brad Howell
Carol (Voyna) Johnson
Vicky (Bremer) Lang 

Lori
Margo (Mayfield) Lind
Elaine Mead
Meg
Don & Ilene Moore
Karen and Gene Nygaard
Ron
Leesa Stanbro Siems
Jeff Sisson
Eric Spurbeck
Mark Stevenson
Sherry Sweet
Melodee White
Brian Wulff
Rosemary Byrne Yokoi

 

Mike  Bruce
Wally Rundle

 
I first want to thank the staff at the Charles City Press and National Weather Service for setting up this blog. It's a great idea and the stories shared are extremely interesting.

Only 2% of the tornadoes in the U.S. are as high as an F5 and to have so many hit on one day is unbelievable. And the amazing job the survivors of the storms did in rebuilding their town, with hard work, dedication, determination and sometimes humor is a testament to the quality people that live in IA. I've been working on a personal Charles City tornado project for the last couple of years, I hope to have a permanent website created soon for others to share their stories. I've researched stories from other individuals who survived the storm and sometimes family members who are still alive to tell their stories. I have thousands of photos, including before and after photos of beautiful buildings and structures in Charles City. Although this was an act of nature...it was our version of Sep. 11th when I was a kid, in a sense that everything we knew changed or was lost that day. The schools, the historical buildings, churches and homes. And the devastated lives from injured or lost loved ones. We lived north of town about 7 miles. I remember the hot windy day and looking up into sunny but puffy clouds and hearing thunder in the middle of the afternoon as we attended a grade school track meet. As we traveled home on the bus route home the rain hit and our neighbor, Mary Reams had a small blue transistor radio and reported a tornado was near Greene and heading toward Charles City. Our dad was waiting at the end of the mile long driveway to pick us up and take us home. When we arrived I remember looking out side to see the ground being covered by golf ball size hail and the wind was fierce. A moment later the hail, rain and wind all stopped. I went to the kitchen to report this to my mom and my brother came running in saying "it's coming...or I think it's coming I think it's the tornado ". My siblings and I all went to the basement when the electricity started to blink off. And we waited in the dark, while my parents watched the storm hit about a mile away from our house. We were fortunate, but that night nothing could have prepared us for the sights we saw of torn up farms, tractors wrapped around trees, dead horses and livestock and farm owners walking their land dazed and looking for items or animals. We drove to the hill north of Charles City but we couldn't see the town, since we were in a downpour of rain. But we listened to the radio and the empty sounds of endless list of individuals that were missing. I will never forget that day.

"Dad Bode " spoke of the apartment building he was near...I believe I have a photo of that place. About 5 weeks ago, I spoke with the funeral director of Hauser Funeral Home, and they didn't live in the house at that time. However, Teresa's detailed story made this very complete. Mrs. Chambers who lost her life in the storm, was heading to the basement with her son-in-law and daughter when she was crushed by the debris. The house she lived at, the Buster Star home was only a block or two from Hauser's Funeral Home. The tornado literally cut the house in half. I ran across an old newspaper article about the church group out at Wildwood, Dixie's story helps fill in what happened. The Gibson Discount story was amazing, the total structure collapsed. About 12 individuals made it to the basement. However a customer, Myrtel Shapley didn't along with a young clerk. Both had to be dug out of the store. Mrs. Shapley suffered a broken leg. It's amazing that more individuals did not lose their lives, especially children. I remember reading about a young man, a high school student teacher who was only 22 and had one last week left in Charles City. He lost his life in the Trowbridge parking lot. His wrecked Volkswagen was tossed across the street to a gas station near the senior housing development.
There are other stories I remember, such as the Momberg's who lived north on Grand Ave. near 18th street. They owned a Mynah bird named Cocoa and they ran to the basement when the storm hit. Hazel made it to the basement and Floyd her husband hung onto a bench in the breezeway. Well like much of the area in the northern end of town, not much was left...except part of the kitchen and the bathroom. The Momberg's both survived and they heard through the rubble their Mynah bird say, "Floyd you SOB, you forgot the bird"! Apparently the bird picked up the colorful language when he was scolding their pet dog for making a puddle on the carpet.

Another amazing story is of Craig Lynch who had just sold his house on Grand Ave.,(around 14th and Grand) after a year of being on the market. He went to the realtor's office at 4:00 and left for home around 4:30. About 15 minutes later they heard the large roar approaching and grabbed their 6 kids to head for the basement. The presser was intense and the soot and dirt flew from all directions as they heard boards and glass breaking. When he looked up at his basement window he noticed his neighbors house was 5 feet closer than normal. When he came upstairs he saw the devestation with trees down everywhere, and houses destroyed. His backyard neighborhood was obliterated. Part of his roof was gone and open to the elements. He walked around with some others helping injured neighbors and elderly out of basements and carrying them on wood doors to cars and station wagons. His house was a complete loss.

My friend Lois was in high school and at home in Oak Park that afternoon and unaware of the approaching tornado. The neighborhood of Oak Park fit the description of being on the "wrong side" of the tracks. One would enter from the new addition on north grand heading west on 17th or 18th street to Oak Park. As soon as you crossed the railroad tracks the road elevation went down a small hill and the houses were definitely not as new or nice as the houses above the tracks.

A young teenager friend came screaming into the house to warn Lois of the approaching storm. She went to get her grandmother and elderly church friends into the root cellar. Lois remembers seeing boards, houses and and tar paper fly through the tornado clouds and she was totally frightened. She went to get an elderly friend named "Sister Decker " who was somewhat blind and very religious. Ms. Decker was standing there steadfast with her bible rebuking the storm...Lois, scared for her life grabbed the elderly lady and fell on her into the root cellar. I'm wondering if Ms. Decker would have had as much faith had she been able to actually see what she was facing.

When the group came out of the cellar they didn't think their was much damage. A few tree limbs were down. Then they noticed the 2 foot flat limestone rock stuck in the side of the house, and the Herman family's garage had landed on the road. As they walked up the road to where the new addition of town had been they had realized how fortunate or blessed they were. For May 15, 1968, they lived on the "right " side of the tracks. And perhaps it was Ms. Decker's praying that saved them?

 

Anonymous

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 20, 2008)
Our family had just moved from New Hampton the previous summer as my father was a pilot at the airport. I had just turned 5 in March of 1968 and my sister was 5 months old. Our house was on Cedar Street between 3rd and 4th Streets. I would have attended McKinley Elementary in the fall.

On the 15th my mother, sister, and I were visiting friends at a new subdivision at the north end of town across the street from Washington Elementary. All of us kids were playing in the backyard. I believe I was the oldest and my sister was the youngest. The mothers were having coffee and cokes and the babies were taking naps.

My mother told me earlier to tell her if it started to rain so she could roll the windows up in the car. When it did start to rain, she ran out and did so, and then we all came in the house. One of the ladies, Galene Sobolik, who also had her children, Kris and Patrick there, mentioned that it sounded like a train was coming and someone yelled, "it's a tornado, " and we all scrambled to get to the basement with mother grabbing napping babies.

We got to the basement just as the tornado it. All I remember is a horrible "whoosh " and the entire house was ripped off the foundation and landed on the house across the street. After it passed, the lady who owned the house, I have since forgotten her name, had been picked up and was sitting on a table. The swingset from the backyard was on top of all of us. My mother, Karen Anderson, was the tallest and she crawled out and helped everyone else out. I barely remember going across the street to another house and going into the basement. That house still had the first floor. An older girl gave me a teddy bear, which I still have to this day. Our car, was supposedly thrown against a pole or tree and bent in half. I do remember how quiet it was after it hit.

After it was decided that no more storms were coming, our group walked to down town to Drs. Trefz and Tolliver's clinic behind the Carnegie Library. We got there to be checked out and while there I remember a women who had been standing in front of a plate glass window and was cut in many places from head to foot.

From the clinic we, I beleive, checked on my grandmother, Marlys Young, who lived in an apartment, next to what is today a bar on Mainstreet on the same block as the Uptown. From there, we continued to Galene's house which is located somewhere just north of Lincoln Elementary. We put water in buckets, I guess because the adults believed that the water might be bad, and stayed there for some time.

My father, Alan Anderson, had been at work at the airport, two miles to the east, and the entire crew there watched the whole thing unfold. At some point they all headed in to find family and friend and help with the recovery.

That is the last I remember of being in the town for some time. We eventually made it to my grandparent's house in New Hampton where we stayed for some length of time.

Our house on Cedar Street survived the tornado, but I guess it was a disaster. The garage was gone, all of the windows were broken and my mom told me later that mud covered the entire inside of the house. Most, if not all, of the houses behind us on Hildreth and further east were destroyed, as were Towbridges, McKinely Elementary, and other places. Our beagle, Buffy, who was tied to the garage also was gone, but he eventually returned to us two weeks later.

Later, when everything sort of settled down, I can remember going to St. Johns Luthern Church for a tetnus shot at the clinic they had set up there with the Red Cross, I believe.

I remember the next year or so, playing on the dirt mounds created by all of the building taking place in and around my house on Cedar Street. I don't really remember much of the damage being apparent after that as I grew up. McKinley Elementary became McKinley Hill and we used to race bikes in a dirt path where the playground was, sled down the hill there, and play touch football in the open area.

When I used to go up in a plane with my father I can remember him pointing out the path which was very evident due to the loss of all of the trees. I am amazed today when I return for a visit at how green everything looks and how mature the trees are.

In the end, I am sure that everyone who survived suffered some sort of trauma. I remember being absolutely terrified of storms and would gather all of my GI Joes and my teddy bear and "hide " or sit under the table in the basement where we went when things got bad. I am no longer scared, but do take them seriously and am the first to send my family to the basement.

I am absolutely convinced that the town, while it suffered some horrific times during and following the tornado and with the collapse of the farm economy in the late 70's and early 80's is one of the finest towns anywhere. When I go home, I am proud of have grown up there.

 

Tim Anderson

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 15, 2008)
My son, Sean, and I were at the corner of Riverside and Wisconsin Streets, dead center between the two bridges in Charles City, approximately where the Charles City Public Library is today. We had left the apartment building and were heading to pick up my wife, Patricia, at the Dairy Queen, where she was working. We were lifted into the air and as I grabbed Sean and dived into the back seat, glass was blown out of the windshield and slammed into my head. I could see the papers on the windows of the old IGA grocery store blowing out, instead of in. T he store was closed, and was being remodeled. It was not until later that I realized that the paper was blowing out because the roof had been blown off the building. I blacked out and came to on top of my son, whose face was full of blood. We got out of the car and I got back to the apartment, filled a bucket with water and washed his face to discover he had a measles-like appearance due to the blowing debris. Neither of us suffered any broken bones. It was not until later, when I finally reached the DQ that Patricia and I discovered I had bled on him with the glass cuts in my scalp. (Two shards of glass did work their way out in the next few months.) I went to the local hospital first and then opted to go to the Mason City Hospital, where I remained until Friday. In that interim, I composed a song in my mind which later was used in a video and a two-record documentary about the tornado.
We arrived in Charles City in 1967. We were planning to stay a couple of years and then move to a larger system. We ended up staying forever, as I taught Spanish for 37 years and my wife is still the HS assistant librarian!

Below are the words to the song "Black Wednesday"

BLACK WEDNESDAY

It happened in Charles City, on the fifteenth day of May.
The black tornado struck the trees and blew them half away.
The houses fell like toothpicks and started to decay,
While families were separated, looking for homes to stay.

The bright red flashing sirens carried people bent with pain.
The silence of the aftermath was followed by the rain.
Those who heard it come and go had thought it was a train.
Now they wondered if they'd ever see the sunny skies again.

But helping hands from strangers, and neighbors no one knew,
Built a human tower of courage to help the homeless,
The injured, and the speechless.
The refugees the black sky left behind,
As its destruction pass on through.

The cars on downtown corners were glassless and obscured.
Discouragement was mumbled, but scarcely ever heard.
People who lost everything were glad to be alive,
While those untouched were hoping that their city could survive.

The search went out for relatives and friends who'd disappeared,
And with the dark of nightfall, the worst was more than feared.
Then faces missed for hours found their way to food and beds,
While visions of the Killer kept churning madly through their heads.

How nice the bridge had looked, when the first cars came across!
Now tangled steel and iron greeted doctors,
And guardsmen, and the curious,
The eyes who saw the vicious path,
And vowed to save the town from further loss.

We'll rebuild Charles City, this mission we all know.
There is no time to sit around and allow dissent to grow.
The feeling of togetherness, of helping others live
Has brought us all new hope for in some way, we all give.

Give shelter to the homeless, and cure the wounds through time:
Let's listen to confusion die away now,
Within our city, this very city,
Which learned that it could overcome,
When Black Wednesday visited and ran.
The blackest day of all, my fellow man.

 

Al Bode

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 12, 2008)
I was 7 years old, in the 1st grade, When the tornado came through Charles City, I was 7 years old and in the 1st grade. I remember that afternoon like it was yesterday. I am from a family of six and 5 of us were home alone (both parents and older brother working) when the storm watches were coming out. I had just gotten home maybe a half hour before the tornado from the "little store " that was a couple blocks from our house. My oldest sister was pretty frantic, but I did not realize the seriousness until it actually hit. We were already in the basement when my Dad and oldest brother came home, so I am not sure by how much they beat the tornado. It really does sound like a train, a REALLY LOUD train! After it was over, we all went outside. Thankfully,our area of town was not hit too badly...but lots of trees and wires were down all over the neighborhood. As we were outside talking to neighbors, we saw our Mom come running down the street. (Pretty hysterical as you can imagine) Everyone asked her, "Where is the car? " She said she did not know, she couldn't find it. She was working at the Trowbridges Store at the time. I can sort of remember going through the town, seeing all the devastation. We did find our car across the street from Trowbridges on it's top. Many neat churches and homes were destroyed...very sad to see some of that history destroyed. The best thing was we did not have to go back to school that year! Our family has a scrapbook we made from that day...a day I will never forget! To this day, I stilll get pretty nervous when the weather gets bad. I have been back in Charles City for 11 years now, the community is as strong as ever and have worked hard at re-building the town. Thanks for letting me share my story!

 

Cheryl Begley

The Hauser Funeral Home was a stately, two-story dwelling that included a spacious apartment above first-floor visitation rooms, an office area and a lower level burial preparation area. Carl and his wife Alice had raised a family while living in the funeral home. Their son, Kip had recently joined the family business. Carl and Kip had spent long hours that spring working on an addition to the funeral home that would provide display space for caskets. On May 14th, they had received a semi-truck load of caskets, their largest inventory ever. Just a day's work remained until they could call the addition finished. On the afternoon of May 15, Carl had just finished a funeral and there were no upcoming services on the schedule. Except for Carl and his assistant Mac Jones, who lived next door, the funeral home was empty. Carl's wife Alice was out of town for the day. Kip and his wife Judy were attending a funeral director's conference in Des Moines. Unless a call came for Carl to pick up a body, it appeared that this particular Wednesday evening would be a quiet one. In fact, it was the quiet that caught Carl's attention as he parked the funeral coach in the garage. Carl went and stood in the driveway for a moment, awed by the palpable stillness had crept up from the river. It was more than the absence of bird song and insect buzz. It was the presence of something, a change in the quality of air that meant that something was coming. Carl ran into the funeral home, realizing that the quiet was soon to be dangerously disturbed. "Mac, let's get to the basement,” he called. Mac said that he was going to run to his home next door instead. He needed to help his wife and blind mother, but Carl convinced him that there would be no time. Within moments of getting to the basement, Carl and Mac were blackened with dirt that sifted down through the rafters as the tornado shook the house. Debris blocked the doorways out of the basement, but Mac fought his way through and ran home where he found his wife and mother standing at the top of the stairs, stunned but unhurt. Carl immediately ran down Blunt Street to the YMCA where Kip and Judy's children were enrolled for afternoon swim lessons. Fortunately, their babysitter had kept them at home because of the weather.

On his way back home, Carl got his first full view of the tornado's damage to their home and business. Their apartment had been torn off the top of the house and parts of the front of the building were missing. The newly-built casket display area looked more like an open deck than a finished room. The addition had been constructed out of 12 inch concrete blocks set with 13 thirty-foot reinforcing rods. The Hauser's later found nine of the rods driven into the ground by the Masonic Temple, four blocks to the northwest. Without the reinforcing rods, the concrete block walls tumbled to the ground. Caskets were strewn into the next block. Carl also found that a body had been carefully placed on the front lawn with one of the funeral cots from the funeral coach. The garage door was blocked by a huge pile of concrete blocks that had tumbled onto the driveway from the new addition. Rescuers had worked their way through a small opening in the garage wall, helped themselves to the cot in the funeral coach and placed the body where they trusted Carl would find it. They also knew that Carl would recognize the deceased and know how to honor the family's wishes. Carl dragged the body into the funeral home. There was nothing more he could do right then and there, so he went back out to see if their neighbors needed help.

Meanwhile, Kip and Judy had finished the funeral director's conference in Des Moines and were heading back home. With the Des Moines skyline in their car's rearview mirror, Kip said to Judy, "If I would have stayed home today, I could have gotten all those little things done in the new addition.” Judy replied, "I'm sure it will all be waiting for you when we get home.” The car radio was tuned to a Des Moines station. At about 5:45 PM, an announcer reported that downtown sections of Charles City and Oelwein had been hit by tornadoes. Kip sped up and the radio station went to a commercial break. Long moments later, the announcer came back on, only to report that there was little information coming out of Charles City because the city's telephone company had been knocked out of commission. Northwestern Bell Telephone Company was one block north of the funeral home. Kip flipped on his hazard lights and covered the remaining 100 miles in an hour. As Kip and Judy approached Charles City on highway 18, they were forced to pull over half a dozen times to let ambulances pass into town. At the Seven Mile Corner west of town, they were stopped by a National Guard blockade and asked to show proof of residency to go any further. National Guard soldiers stopped them again in front of Salsbury Laboratories on Highway 18 and a third time a short distance up the road at the American Legion Hall. At the final blockade, a National Guard soldier approached Kip's car and apologized for the inconvenience. "I'm sorry, you won't be able to go in. We've had a very bad tragedy here today.”

From that particular vantage point, the only positive sign they had was that the trees were whole and fully-leaved as far to the right as they could see. They hoped that this meant that their home was spared with their children safe inside. Kip replied, "We just live a few blocks beyond this point. Our parents and children are in town. We have to go in.” The guard again apologized and stood his ground. Judy stayed out of the conversation until she sensed that the poor guard was in danger of being taken off duty by her increasingly agitated husband. When Kip started to get out of the car, Judy piped in, "Please sir, our children…” The soldier then asked Kip, "What do you do here, sir?” When Kip replied that he was a funeral director, the guard said, "Good God, go on in. We need you bad.” Kip and Judy went straight to their home on Charles Street and found their children safe with a neighborhood sitter. Their home had broken windows, but no serious damage. Judging by the guardsman's comments, Kip anticipated that he would need to take more than the sedan he was driving to the funeral home, so he drove the family's station wagon downtown. Kip took South Main Street toward the center of town, driving across lawns where other cars had already carved a path to get around trees blocking the road. Turning from Main to Blunt Street, Kip was able to drive only a block or so before he was stalled by huge elms trees that lay sprawled across the street, crushing several cars. Kip left the car near the old YMCA and walked to the funeral home.

Inside the funeral home, the ceremonious order of the foyer and visitation rooms had been violated with a spray of mud and glass. The curtains hung in shreds and water dripped from the ceiling. Kip found a woman's body on a funeral cot. He knew her well. Sadie Chambers had been their grandmotherly neighbor across Blunt Street for many years. Kip looked through every lonely room of the funeral home, then went out into the neighborhood. Rain began a "drip, drip, drip,” adding to the hiss of leaking gas pipes and the gurgle of broken water pipes in surrounding homes. Finding no one who knew anything of his father, Kip returned to the funeral home. Carl had been scouting around the neighborhood as well, helping where he could, but never crossing paths with Kip until they finally met back up at the funeral home. Without electricity and running water, they would not be able to prepare bodies for burial there. Kip went back out to the streets and flagged down a man in an earth-moving truck who could clear a path from their garage and on down Blunt Street. Carl and Kip then drove the funeral coach and Kip's station wagon to the hospital where they suspected that there was work to be done.

With the onslaught of injured persons streaming into the hospital, the dead had been hastily moved to the morgue. None of the bodies had yet been tagged with any type of identification but Carl knew the name of each person. He also knew who would have likely called him and who would have called Hage Funeral Home across town. Hage was not damaged but it was without utilities as well. Carl took two bodies to a Nashua funeral home and Kip took three bodies to Champion Funeral Home in Osage. When Kip arrived at Champion, their tiny embalming room was already occupied by one tornado victim, an unidentified male. As Kip was preparing the bodies for burial, Floyd County Sheriff L. L. Lane arrived to document the identities of the 3 victims Kip had delivered and gather information about the other victim. Kip worked at the Osage funeral home until after midnight. As he drove back toward Charles City, he was awestruck by the utter darkness where the city lights should have been glowing on the horizon. At home, Judy had left a candle burning for Kip on the kitchen counter. Though she meant it to be welcoming, it stirred anxious thoughts of fire.

Kip drove back downtown to the funeral home where he knew there was a supply of sturdier tall glass candle holders. The funeral home's basement was as familiar to him as any place on earth, but the extreme stillness and absence of light evoked the creeps beyond anything he'd ever known, even by a seasoned mortician's standards. Rain and wind banged doors on creaky hinges as he searched for the candles with the thin beam of his flashlight. As he ascended the basement steps with the box of candle holders, a National Guard jeep with a mounted machine gun cut through the stillness on Blunt Street. Among other things, the guards were patrolling for looters. Kip crept stealthily to his car, careful not to invite a discussion about what he was doing carrying cargo out of a funeral home at 2:00 a.m.

In the hours since Kip had conferred with Sheriff L. L. Lane about the unidentified body in the Osage funeral home, the sheriff had scouted every locale in town where he thought he might find someone who could identify the victim. It would be nearly 24 hours after the storm before Sheriff Lane could place a name for the young man and provide a beginning step toward closure for his family. About the time that Kip Hauser was trying to solve his lighting dilemma, the sheriff was summoned to Gibson's Department Store on the corner of Main and Blunt Streets.

A portion of the store had collapsed like a house of cards under the tornado's fury. Store officials immediately accounted for their employees and several customers who escaped with bruises, cuts and broken bones. However, they could not say for sure how many shoppers might have been inside the store when the tornado hit. Rescuers had continued to search through the layers of rubble late into the evening. At 11 p.m., Sheriff Lane called off all manual labor in the downtown area. Allowing rescuers to enter unstable buildings in the dark could simply lead to more trouble. Around midnight, the sheriff, an ambulance crew and several volunteers responded to a report of a person trapped inside Gibson's. By this time, a second severe storm had pounded the city with heavy rain and straight-line winds, causing the strata of rubble to settle into even tighter layers.

In the pitch black stillness on Main Street, Sheriff Lane shined his flashlight into the tiny opening near the front of Gibson's store where the victim was reportedly trapped. The eerie blue stream of light shone on a head of light brown, curly hair. The rest of the victim's body was hidden in the rubble. Sheriff Lane called to the victim repeatedly with no response. Rescuers stood by with a stretcher while Sheriff Lane squeezed himself farther into the opening and reached for the victim, who he guessed to be a woman. He grasped a handful of her hair, but was disheartened to find that the top of her head felt cold. Still, there might be a chance that she was still alive. If only he could pull her through the narrow opening without setting off a further collapse. Stretching his hand wide over the top of her head and gathering a firm fistful of hair, he pulled as hard as he could. Outside the store, rescuers heard the sheriff emit a small scream followed by the only laughter they would hear from him that night. Sheriff Lane shimmied back out of the tunnel and tossed forth the fruits of his rescue attempt: a woman's wig from a store mannequin.

 

 

Teresa Carr

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)
At the time I was 7 years old and lived on a farm west of Chatfield. I remember after coming home from school I walked across a field to where my Dad was repairing a fence. When we walked back to the house I looked up and saw things drifting down from the sky. I remember small tufts of pink fiberglass insulation and pieces of "tar " paper. If I remember correctly there was the yellow part of a sales receipt that drifted down, I think from a hardware store, but I don't recall where it was from (maybe Charles City?). The sky was overcast with cirrus clouds and the sky was darker to the south. I don't recall, but there may have been thunder in the distance because I distinctly remember saying to my Dad, "Maybe some birds got hit my lightning and they're falling down. " when I first saw the stuff drifting down. I'm not certain of the time, it may have been between 4 and 5pm.

There was also at least one tornado in southeast Minnesota that day. I'm not sure where it originated, but it caused damage on the northwest edge of Canton, moved northeast to Newburg and continued on at least 5 or 6 miles. It damaged numerous farms, including my grandparent's north of Mabel. It also blew the windows out of a church about one half mile west of their farm. The tornado struck their farm shortly after 7 pm.

 

Garold Casler

I was born in Charles City in 1955. Later that year my folks moved my 3 brothers and me to Denver CO.

I remember coming home from school and my Mom freaking out watching grainy black and white t.v. images from Charles City.
I often wonder how our lives would've been had we not moved to Denver.
 

Dave DeLong

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 14, 2008)
I was 16 in March of 1968 and have very vivid memories of the day of the tornado, May 15th.

Around 4pm, I was at the junior high and had called my mother to come and pick me up. I had an armload of stuff and didn't want to walk home with it all. I normally would have been walking south down main street between 4:30 and 5pm. By 4:30, we stopped at Trowbridges. As I waited in the parking lot for my mother's return, I remember how very hot and muggy the air was. It was hard to breathe. When my mother came back to the car, we headed straight home to Johnson Street, one block north of Jefferson school.

The radio was talking about seeing funnel clouds. Not being very concerned, I stood outside watching the dark clouds. Then it hailed and the hail stones were as big as baseballs! I grabbed a plastic bag and started collecting some to put in the freezer. Just then, mom said she thought she heard a train and we could hear a distant rumble and roaring. At that moment, the radio announcer yelled to get to shelter..it's here...and the radio went dead. Mom and I rushed to the basement and my ears were popping and I felt pressure. We could hear thing banging and thumping around us and as suddenly as it started, it stopped. We crept up the stairs to find our home still standing. Our front door hadn't latched properly so that it blew open and the living room curtains were all twisted...like someone had stood there and wrapped them in a circle.

Looking down our street, we could see many trees down but not much damage. Very soon after that, we started seeing trucks heading down our street with bodies on doors and boards. Johnson street was one of the streets that traffic could get through to get to the hospital. My neighbor girlfriend came running up the street, collapsed in her yard, and kept repeating "Everything is gone...everyone is dead ". She had been in the basement of the Charles City Press building. When she settled down enough to talk to us, we decided that we should go and see for ourselves. I still can clearly remember walking to the edge of the main street hill, just south of the Lutheran church, and looking down at the total destruction of the town.

Many of my memories after that are rather sketchy. I remember sitting on the front steps of our house when my mother came out with two spoons and a carton of ice cream. She said that we needed to eat it before it melted. I remember feeling uncomfortable sleeping in my upstairs bedroom so I laid on the couch and listened to KCHA all night for many nights listening to the list of names they were announcing. I volunteered on a Red Cross truck that took food, soap, supplies to the country families north of town. We would drop off groups of kids at the farms and they would 'sweep' the fields getting debris off of the new crops. At one farm, there was very little house left standing but the mother was so pleased to get laundry soap because her washer and dryer were still working! I think the funniest thing I remember is watching a farm dog running along side our truck as we entered the driveway. His mouth was moving but no sound was coming out. The farmer explained that his dog had barked so hard at the approaching storm that he had lost his "bark "! Apparently, I was so "in shock " from the storm that I spent every minute that I could at the Red Cross station waiting for my next assignment. After 6 days straight, I was exhausted but couldn't stop. The coordinator at the Red Cross station saw me walk in early on that 7th morning and called for a police officer to come and get me. I remember him saying "Tell her parents not to let her come back for 24 hours. " I remember sleeping hard for the first time since the storm.

This storm really changed my life. I had many special friends move away because their parents no longer had employment. The town changed, people changed. I seemed to get a very strong "live for today " attitude that caused me some problems but I had the selfish thinking of a teenager at that time. Today I realize that, although 13 people died, it could have been much worse. The people who stayed in Charles City pulled together and kept the faith by rebuilding and caring for each other. It is a day I will never forget!!

 

Margaret (Garner) Dunston

When the May 15 tornado struck First Methodist Church, Dixie Fox knew she had to protect her children, even if that meant she would be in harms way. Fox was with a church group out at Wildwood when a neighbor informed her of the incoming storm. She hurried back to First Methodist Church, and was waiting obtain more information from the minister when she "heard an explosion,” which immediately caused her to take her group of children towards the basement.

"For some reason or other, we didn't go to the basement. We turned and ended up in an entryway,” she remembered

In the small space, Fox and her group — which included two of her own children, daughter DeDi, 4, and son Dave, 5 — crammed into a corner in an effort to best avoid a hazard on the other side of the room.

"There was a great big window just opposite of us, and when the storm hit, it was so loud. I yelled for DeDi and they yelled back for me, and even though we were on top of each other, we had to scream to hear each other.”

Dixie realized Dave was left facing the window under the pile. She positioned herself the best she could to block flying debris. Dave was uninjured after the tornado blew apart the window.

"It was a miracle that something didn't hit him because I thought Iwas gone because things kept hitting me,” Dixie said.

Eventually, Dixie had to have glass hand-picked out of her back. However, she first realized the gravity of the situation when she walked towards her home on Cedar Street.

As she was walking, she recalled seeing people walking from Main Street with "blood all over.” The old fire whistle slowly whined in the distance before it died as the tornado left the area.

"I had to carry DeDi all the way home,” Dixie said. "I thought that everything was going to be fine, but when I turned the corner I looked at the block across the street and it was just annhilated.

"A neighbor told me not to go any further, and I burst out bawling — I was in shock.”

Her house, which had just been completed after 13 years of building, had sustained major damage.

Dixie Fox

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)

On May 15, 1968, I was a senior at Nashua High School getting ready for our senior prom, which was scheduled for May 17th at Club Iowa. I remember being outside that day for gym class and the weather was unseasonably hot. My girlfriend, Norma Ridder, and I were planning on coming to Charles City after school and my mother said there were storm warnings out and we could not go. We were upset, but glad we listened to her.

After the storm passed, I remember trying to get into town with my family and checking on my grandmother who lived on Salzer Street. We were stopped and asked where she lived and being told that that part of town had not been hit and that she was safe. My other grandparents were not so fortunate. Heine and Emma Mohring lived north of town and their entire farm was hit, the only building left was the house. Gone were the chicken houses where I had gathered eggs, the red barn where I played in the hay loft, the grainery where I had a play house, and the rest of the buildings so familiar to my childhood. Grandma had watched the barn go and then headed for the root cellar for safety.

My memories include the stillness, the hail and the rain. I remember listening to KCHA that night, the static, and panic in the announcer's voice.

The following days and months were of disbelief that the town we had known and knew so well was gone forever and all that was left were our memories of how it was before the storm. As for the prom, it did go on, just as our lives did. The beauty parlor, I believe it was the Golden Curl, where all of my friends and I were to get our hair done was gone, we all got together and did each other's hair. It was held in the Nashua High School Gym and not Club Iowa. Graduation day came and went in the following weeks.

 

Barbara Fuls

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 12, 2008)
I was 6 years old and school (kindergarten) was just about over for the season. I don't remember anything very remarkable about the day until swimming lessons were over at the YMCA. Kendra Budwig and I were standing at the front doors of the Y waiting for Kendra's mom to come pick us up. The sky was a dark green color and it began to hail as we waited for our ride. I remember Mrs. Frye coming to the front door to get us and the rest of the kids that were waiting. We went back down into the lobby and were told to sit "Indian” style with our hands over our heads. Within a matter of moments the lights went out. Kids were starting to cry when the loud noise of the tornado came. We could hear glass breaking all around us and it got very, very dark. Those moments during the storm are blurry because of all that was going on. I do remember seeing a man come down the steps into the lobby carrying a little girl. He was in a white tank t-shirt and his one arm was covered in blood. It was the first time that I had ever seen that amount of blood.

It was over as fast as it had started. Other than kids crying, it was really quiet outside. You could feel that the temperature had really fallen and the smell of rain was strong in the air. I sometimes still smell that when a storm is approaching, a combination of rain and dirt. There was a big tree that had made its way through the front door and we all ended up having to climb up and out of the doors. I remember seeing parts of the upper floors of the Y gone. Some furniture remained in the opened up walls as if it never moved from their places. There were people still up in those rooms looking down, having been caught up in their rooms with no warning of where to go.

I can remember it being cold and wet. There was mass chaos with all the kids wondering what to do next and the Y instructors trying to keep us all in one place. There were a bunch of girls from the 3rd Ave. neighborhood taking off for home and I tried to follow them leaving Kendra behind, (Sorry Kendra). I came back to her and we waited. Herb Budwig, her dad showed up and we walked to where he was parked, Immaculate Conception Church. That is as far as he could travel by car. I remember holding hands with him and Kendra and we would count to 3 as we jumped over live power lines. I remember seeing a house tipped so its roof was in the basement. We could see right through the front doors into a room where a piano was tipped and there were men in there trying to move the piano. I also remember shivering so hard that it hurt. It was just all too much for a 6 year old to take in.

We got to the church to see its destruction. Bricks were everywhere. People were walking round in a daze. We got half way up 3rd Ave. when we saw my dad walking toward uptown. He had walked home from Oliver and checked on our house before he set out to find me. My grandfather, Carl DeBower also did the same thing, but he got down to the Y to find out that I had already left. For days and days after wards the neighbor ladies would convene on the street corner to listen to transistor radios about the devastation and tell stories about all the heartaches of the storm. The kids would also tell their stories about watching Bart from "Barts Club House " telling them about the coming storm and to go to their basements. Or they would tell stories about hearing that someone's big toe was found in a mail box. We heard a lot of those stories!

To this day, I still have tornado nightmares. This time of the year is the worst with all the public service announcements about severe weather.

 

Karla (Schmitt) Goddard

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 15, 2008)
Although we were living in Palo Alto Co. at the time, my mother, Eleanor Graff grew up in Floyd Co. When we got home from school, my parents made a comment about the color of the sky, and that you could tell there was a bad storm somewhere. Later, that evening, we heard about the Charles City tornado. My mother tried calling her parents, who lived seven miles north of town, but to no avail.

We later learned that my grandmother, Ruth Girken, was resting in the living room when she heard a loud roar. She asked my grandfather, Harlan Girken, what it was. He looked out, saw nothing but rain in the dark, and told her the wind was just picking up. Later that evening,her sister, Nina Ebert came over and told them the whole town had been destroyed.

 

Lynn Graff

I will never forget May 15, 1968 as long as I live. I was so happy that our farm was spared from the tornado, but we watched it east of us then turned north and went right into town. I'll never forget the guy on KCHA saying that he was going outside to look at the weather, and came back to say "Oh my God here It comes!! " then the radio station went blank. I looked at my mother and she started crying and said that "the whole town was probably gone ". I was so glad to see my dad coming home from town! He was building a house north of town with the Triad crew. It was days and days after the storm that my dad would come home and cry like a baby from working in his town he loved so much. I sit here writing this with tears in my eyes, but with all the great people the town is still the best town in this country to be raised in!

 

Jeff Heller

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 1, 2008)
At the age of 25, Jim Hilgendorf plunged right into the middle of the carnage that followed the tornado. As a member of an ambulance crew, Hilgendorf and Wes Banks were out on a call when the tornado was bearing down on Charles City. They got to a basement before the twister passed through, but when they re-emerged they had work to do. Hilgendorf and Banks drove the ambulance down Gilbert Street until they reached the courthouse."We looked across (the river) and it was a war zone,” Hilgendorf recalled. The ambulance crew maneuvered their vehicle across the river to offer aid. "We picked up our first person right about where City Hall is now,” Hilgendorf said. "We picked up a lot more than one person.” To get from the downtown area to the hospital, they had to cut across yards to avoid downed trees and power lines. While at the hospital, things were thrown into a frenzy."I saw one guy who was brought in on a door,” Hilgendorf remembered. That night, Hilgendorf and Banks worked about 4-5 extra hours, and dealt with a variety of injuries. "We had some pretty bad ones,” he said. The tornado did put a strain on the town's medical resources, but Hilgendorf cited an impressive volunteer effort that kept emergency services operational. "You couldn't believe the help that poured into this town, it was really something.”

Jim Hilgendorf

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)

I survived the Charles City May 15, 1968 tornado and feel very lucky to have done so. This event so traumatized me that I can vividly remember it today like it was just yesterday and probably will for the rest of my life. I was 15 at that time and a paper carrier for the Charles City Press who later covered my story once the paper office was back up and running again. I'm not sure of that date, but have an original copy of it in my scrapbook. My route was the Cedar Terrace apartments on the south side of the river. That day was very unusual, very hot and humid and nothing like normal Iowa that time of year was. I was dreading running my delivery route because of the heat but I had a job to do and was going to get it done. I left the junior high around 3:30 and headed for the paper office to pick up my usual 48 papers for the 42 customers I had on my route.

I had waited a little more than a year to get this route. There were 18 quadruplex buildings with 72 units in a two block area, a paperboys dream route. That afternoon I hung around the paper office talking with the other carriers while folding my papers. This was a departure from my normal routine, but I wanted to do some money collecting and needed to wait for some of my customer's to arrive home from work. I finally got started on my route around 4:30 which was located just a few blocks from the paper office.

I ran the Greeless Circle, or west part of the complex first and then moved to the eastern, or Kneisel Circle portion, of the route next. At around quarter to 5, I was riding my bike and working the western side of Kneisel Circle when it began to rain very hard. I stopped my bike at apartment 49 to wait out the rain. These apartments had a small covering over each door and this is where I sought refuge.

It didn't stop raining, instead, it started to rain very hard and then hail stones the size of baseballs started to fall. They were smashing out car and home windows and cracking roofs and car metal all around me. I knew this was a sign a very strong high level winds and I became frightened enough to open the apartment door I was waiting by and proceed inside to seek shelter.

As I opened the door, I saw an elderly lady dressed in a nurse's uniform, Mrs. Hazel Burgess, pacing back and forth in the living room ringing her hands and repeating "oh my goodness, what should I do? " Hazel was not a customer of mine, and I didn't know her, but I was desperate to find a hiding place in that monolithic slab building knowing full well the danger I was in. I looked out the south-facing window and saw what appeared to be a solid dark gray wall of debris moving directly toward us. For a moment, I stood there and watched as the southern portion of the Trowbridge market roof flew up and then crashed down onto the north end of that building while cars in the parking lot where shuffled as if dominoes on a table.

I spotted a heavy oak drop-leaf table and commented to Hazel "I don't know about you, but I'm going to hide under that table and you should join me. " I started knocking the items off the top of the table with my hand believing it would make it lighter and began to drag it down the hallway. I was thinking that the center of the building was going to be sturdier and was going to be our best chance of surviving this. Even with the items removed from the top, the table was still very heavy. But tugging constantly, and assisted by my fear, I got it about halfway down the hall when the windows blew in. Hazel had been walking behind the dragging table and was in a state of panic, all of which I could hear and had been conscious of, but my focus was on getting this heavy table to a safe spot. At that moment, I grabbed her and shoved her under the table and slid under myself.

I looked up to see the walls sway in and out repeatedly and the roof began to disintegrate into thin air. Something hit me in the side of the face, so I put my hands over my head and tucked myself into a ball on my knees under the table. By this time, Hazel had grabbed my ankles and was squeezing then so tightly she was cutting off the circulation to my feet. The sound was deafening and the mayhem lasted for what seemed an eternity. Then it just suddenly stopped. I lifted my head thinking it was over and something stuck me in the head again. Evidently, it wasn't over; the center had just passed over us. I assumed the kneeling position again and the violence started again and lasted for another eternity.

When it finally stopped, I cautiously raised my head again and realized the entire roof, and most of the walls, were gone. The table was surrounded by debris and I felt completely beat up, but no blood anywhere and we were still alive. I crawled out from under the table and stood up. I watched the backside of the tornado moving north and realized I could see the mud bottom of the river, it had sucked all the water out of that section of the river! The black wall continued to churn and move north as I saw the water rushing in from both directions to fill the void left in the river bottom.

There was a very strange quiet directly afterwards. I could hear people yelling and crying out in pain all around me but my attention was caught by a whimpering that seemed just to my right. I climbed up the half section of wall to the adjacent apartment and spotted a lady with a very serious injury to her hand. I had noticed when I first entered the apartment that Hazel was wearing a nurse's uniform so I called out for her to help. Being frail, Hazel replied that she couldn't get out of her apartment. So I began to explain the situation to her. She looked around and produced a section of cloth and instructed me on applying a tourniquet to this woman's arm. I retrieved the cloth from her and completed the task of stopping the bleeding.

I then stood and surveyed the area. As far as I could see in all directions, was nothing but devastation. I started to wonder about my house and family and became very concerned. I looked for my bike and found the front wheel sticking out from under a fallen brick wall. Realizing this wasn't going to be an option, I told Hazel I needed to go home and find my family. She acknowledged my concern and told me to go, they would be fine as help was surely on the way. I ran the entire distance back to my house at 100 Charles Street.

When I arrived home, my sister was standing in the front yard crying but our house was undamaged and just like I had left it that morning. My 13 year old brother showed up a few minutes later and my mother came running up to the house limping wearing one high heel shortly there after. We gathered there in the front yard and I realized all had made it through uninjured knowing my father was out of town that day. I was the worst of the group with an insulation and mud coating on one side of my body and several bruises, but no severe cuts and fine past that.

I returned to Cedar Terrace the next day only to find one of the victims had been found in that same area. At that moment, I realized just how lucky I really was to have made it through. My younger brother and I worked for the Civil defense for the next few weeks clearing roadways and helping wherever we were needed.

I lost my entire paper route that day and never got another one to replace it. Our family moved away from Charles City the next year and my family, or what survives today, is scattered to the four winds.

Brad Howell - Charles City Class of 72
Grand Prairie, Texas

I was 12 years old when the Tornado hit Charles City in 1968. The local schools had a track meet that day and my school McKinley won the track meet that day! (one positive memory of the day). I remember just getting home from my paper route and watching "Bart's Clubhouse " with my brothers and sister. He announced that a tornado was heading straight for Charles City and to take cover. I remember asking my Dad what was going on, as he was upstairs. He told us to stay in the basement and he would watch the weather from upstairs. Our house wasn't near the damaged area as we lived on the east end of Charles City.

When it seemed to pass, Dad said he was going to check on our mother, who worked at Trowbridge Grocery Store (Schueth Ace Hardware stands there now) and see if anyone needed help. Dad meet up with one of the Grant brothers on the way and together they started to clear away fallen debris. Mr. Grant's home had been damaged in the tornado but he was out helping remove heavy debris with his equipment from work.

My mom remembers the gentleman coming in from the gas station and yelling the tornado was on it's way and to take cover! My mom announced over the PA system that the tornado was coming and for everyone to head to the basement. She also remembers all the flying merchandise in the store as she descended the stairs. She had her glasses blown off and someone helped her find them in the debris on the steps. She also remembers being lifted off the ground as she went down the steps to the basement and just making it down there before it was all over!

My oldest brother, Steve had been at the high school for track and tried to get home. He decided to back track and go to where dad worked at the old highway commission building just off 8th Avenue and J Street. They put him to work manning the radios.

As a whole, the town was very lucky we lost only 13 people when you look at the damage it caused in the homes, businesses, churches, schools, and the downtown area. We could have lost a lot more lives if the tornado had come during the school hours also.

It was amazing to watch everyone working together to help out their neighbors and strangers! When ever the weather turns really bad or dark there are still a lot of people who flash back to that day. It has taken a long time for some of us to get over that nervousness and not be completely scared of storms.

 

Carol (Voyna) Johnson

I was 11 years old and lived in New Hampton with my folks. My grandparents, Delbert and Naomi Anderson lived in Charles City on Sprigg Street. After the tornado struck we had no way of knowing if they were okay and my mom was beside herself with worry. My brother and I stayed with other family members in New Hampton while mom and dad drove to Charles City to check on grandma and grandpa. It was evening by the time they got to town. The National Guard initially would not let them into town but after some convincing did allow them through. My grandparents house was spared but they lost many beautiful trees on their street. They were very fortunate. My parents were visibly shaken from what they witnessed that night and the vision always stayed with them. They said it was as if they had entered a war zone. It was the worst thing they had ever seen.

 

Vicky (Bremer) Lang

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 10, 2008)
I was 8 yrs. old at the time, but I still remember that afternoon vividly. Running across the street and into my grandparents basement, the roaring freight train noise followed by complete silence. The huge tree in our front yard across the street laying next to the house. We were among the fortunate that didn't suffer any significant damage. I remember laying on the floor in the dark that night listening to sirens and chainsaws. To this day I get a little freaked out when the sky gets that awful green color.

 

Lori

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 8, 2008)
I was not quite six years old when the tornado hit, but I can still remember it as clear as if it were yesterday. I remember being terrified of the noise and being furious that my Dad was holding my little brother and not me. After the storm, when we came up out of the cellar, we had big trees down across the road blocking the route to the hospital. A car drove up on our lawn to go around the trees, with the trunk open and carrying what I am sure was one of the day's fatalities. A family, we were friends with, came walking down the street. They were dazed. Their home was gone. They were so dazed they didn't know who we were and they walked right past us. We walked to my grandparents' house, where luckily everyone was unharmed. I still get tears in my eyes when I read about or think about that day. I have lived through three serious hurricanes, and I will take those any day over a tornado.

 

Margo (Mayfield) Lind

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 1, 2008)
Life circumstances can change in an instant. On April 15, 1968 Elaine Mead went from a carefree high school senior to fearing for her life in under an hour. Mead was a senior at Charles City High School "anxiously awaiting to get out of school early before everyone else.” On Wednesday, April 15, 1968, Mead and a friend were running errands around town after school. With the end of school looming, she was happily going about her daily routine, and chose to ignore some of the early weather warnings.

"We had heard on the radio that a tornado was coming, but being a senior we didn't believe anything would happen,” she said.

After completing her errands, Mead and her friend noticed that Main Street had cleared out and was eerily calm. They became nervous and started to leave town, going down Main Street and taking a left onto Gilbert.

"Around Dairy Queen we looked over the trees and saw this huge black thing — it didn't look like a skinny little tornado, it was more like a cloud with debris.

"All I knew to do was get out of the vehicle and lay down on low ground,” Mead recalled.

"I thought ‘I might be dying today.' You just don't know what to think really because of the fear.”

The edge of the tornado passed near enough to them to blow out windows in nearby buildings and uproot trees around them. Mead and her friend were able to head for the family farm west of Charles City without a scratch.

When they arrived at Mead's home, Elaine told her parents what had happened and they returned to town.

"It was just like what I would think of being a war zone. The trees were all stripped and I remember seeing sizzling power lines on the ground. It was dark and eerie and you could see emergency lights flashing.

"It was amazing because you could not drive down a street because of all the trees. You just had to walk around everything and you saw people walking around in a daze kind of bloody and everyone was just shocked,” Mead remembered.

Mead also recalled that the mood at graduation that year was "a little more somber than it should have been.”

 

Elaine Mead

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 16, 2008)
It was a warm and humid spring day. I was headed to Larson and Carr's attorneys office to sign the papers on my first house. I parked my 1960 Ford Starlinder in front of Doc Vollum's garage. We had been in the office, in the old Adrian Implement building less than 5 minutes when the secretary came in and said "it's coming ". We got under this huge oak conference table and watched the roof lift up and drop down. It sounded like a freight train was running over us. Later, we went out to see the used car lot across the street with cars twisted up in a pile. Around the corner where I parked the second story of Doc Vollum's had collapsed on my car crushing it to the ground as well as a Sears service van that had pulled in behind it (the driver was killed). We walked to our new home on S. Iowa and hardly a branch was broken. I'll obviously never for get that day.

 

Meg

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 14, 2008)

As I read through the post I recognized several names that sparked many memories. Barb Fuls I had forgotten you were so young back on May 15th. We later lived only a couple blocks away from each other, you and Larry on 18th Avenue and the Nygaards on 19th Avenue. I also found it interesting that from the last blog posted, we apparently lived on the "right side” of the tracks!!

May 15th, 1968, 40 years ago, I was the mother of a 2 year old and expecting a new baby on May 30th. I had just returned from a medical appointment with Dr. Trefz and went to neighbors, Phil and Sharon Koenigs to get our son. The weather was oppressive, hot windy and the sky was getting funny looking. Gene came home and was going to drive across the street and pick us up to all be together at out house. Phil was working late at White Farm. As Gene backed the car into the Koenigs garage he saw the dirt rising and 18th Avenue being ravaged by the funnel. Sharon and I had taken the 3 kids to the basement and were waiting for Gene to get inside. He had brought the dog and the dog refused to go into the basement. He let the dog go and made it to the basement in time to lean over and shelter the rest of us under the stair way. The roar was deafening and the noise of breaking glass and the screeching of nails being ripped from the timbers was all we could hear. Then there was silence, the awful silence. As Gene straightened up and looked up all he saw was clear sky. The house was completely gone. All that remained of the Koenigs house was the stairway that we had taken refuge under. One by one Gene started looking us all over, Sharon had cuts, 5 month old Michael had cuts, Kevin was okay and I had a gaping wound in my right calf. As we climbed out of the basement we realize that the kids are barefoot and have no jackets so we can't sit them down. Our car that was in the garage has a timber straight through it and where our house had stood was nothing. In fact the whole neighborhood was gone. And still the silence!

A pick up from the chemical plant lumbers up from the "wrong side” of the tracks and Gene hails it down to transport me to the hospital. We leave Kevin our 2 year son with Sharon Koenigs who is assisted with 3 kids to the water plant and eventually strangers take them to Austin Minnesota to be with Sharon's parents.

Getting to the hospital took 2 hours in and out of streets blocked by trees. I am conscious and remember finally getting to the Main Street Bridge and saying that Charles City was going to get it's redevelopment like it or not. Some of you may recall it had just been voted down. Once I was at the hospital and safe, Gene went to find our son. My stay at Charles City hospital was only a few hours, my injuries could not be handled in Charles City due to all the chaos. I was transported by ambulance to Mason City unbeknownst to Gene. While I am in surgery, Gene and Phil Koenigs hitch hiked to Stacyville to get Phils parents car, our cars were damaged. After a frantic night Gene and I were finally reunited at Mason City Mercy Hospital. We were alive, we had nothing but each other and at this point that was all that counted.

On May 16th, 24 hours after the tornado we were blessed with a healthy baby girl, Mary Beth. Guess who turned 40 this year?

People helping people, this is the lesson to be remembered along with the pain and memories. Dean Kline and his family took our family of 5, my sister came to assist with kids since I was in a cast for 3 months, into his home for almost 2 months, Milo Molitor and his family found us a place to live, the nursing staff at Mercy Hospital organized and gave us clothes and toys for the kids, The Koenigs Family in Stacyville helped with the clean up at the addresses on 19th Avenue, SBA financed our home so we could rebuild, Red Cross gave us a table and chairs, clothes. Doesn't sound like much? Remember it is all we had. Faith, friends and an uncertain future lay ahead.

Oh yes, the dog was found and went to live in Minneapolis with his former owner, My great Aunt Vivian from Milwaukee came to visit me in Mason City. She was in Charles City for a funeral. Mrs. Leach who died was her brother's wife. Gene and I have lived in Texas, Ohio and Delaware and moved back to Denton Texas 3 years ago. We have 5 Grand kids and believe me they all know what bad weather looks like, they know to get their shoes and a jacket, stay calm and do what your parents say.

We will never forget that day nor will we ever forget those who helped us get back on our feet. Dean and Milo are no longer with us but we still have contact with their family members, those families that made us part of their family. Pass it on, it feels good!

Karen and Gene Nygaard

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 14, 2008)
We were in Vienna Austria on vacation and heard about the tornado in Charles City IA on Armed Forces Radio!!

 

Don and Ilene Moore

I was about 8 when that day occurred. We had recently moved to a farm about 10 miles south of Charles City. Even that far out it was a scary experience. My dad barely made it back from the field losing the lids off the planter due to the wind. Huddled beneath the basement stairs we listened to the radio till it went off the air. My old elementary school McKinley was obliterated in that storm. I remember that my dad and one of our neighbors took their chainsaws to help with the cleanup. What they saw when they arrived in town was something that never left them. To this day when we talk about it my dad says that a lot of the area was unrecognizable. Thank God there wasn't as much loss of life as there could have been considering the amount of damage the town took.

 

Ron Note

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on April 25, 2008)
I was 10 the day the tornado hit Charles City. I will never forget that day nor will I ever fell safe when a storm brews up. Our house was located on Grand and 15th. We had an older two story home until the tornado hit. The tornado shitfted our house off its foundation, turned it, took one half and then left it. My mom and us five kids were in the S.W corner of the basement, had we been in the N.E, we would not have been so lucky, that is where alot of the wreakage come in. My dad, made it to the bottom of the steps but with the force of the wind, he could not move. We were very blessed that day that we all survived monster. My Dad drove a Comet back and forth to work and after the tornado, he found 3 different colored wigs in his car. And talk about never getting away from your bills, one of mom and dad's gas bills was found in the front yard of a reporter in Chatfield, MN about 80 miles form Charles City. The reporter got in touch with mom and dad and asked if she could come down and do a story on us, which she did, the story was on the front page of her hometown paper along with a picture of our house, oh and by the way, she also did returned the bill!!! I also remember, my grandma T and three uncles from Il, came as soon as they heard about the tornado but were stopped just outside of the city limits by the National Guard, they had supplies with them such as blankets, sheets, food etc. that would eventually let them in plus my mom had to go to them and let the N.G know they were who they said they were. It was gut wrenching for them not knowing if we were alive, missing or among the dead. I don't remember much of what Charles City looked like after the tornado except walking down the middle fo the road afterwards and needing to watch for live wires and hearing people crying and seeing our neighbor being carried out of her house on a door made as a stretcher. As I was growing up, the smell of mud use to be one of the worst smells for me, I could not figure it out until I was talking with my mom and it dawned on me that smell was the smell right after the tornado...isn't it funny how things stick in our heads after so many years. When our kids were growing up, I was so afraid I would not be able to protect them from such a storm that I would make myself sick....although I got my house cleaning done (that was how I would try to stay calm and keep the kids from knowing how scared I was...didn't always work). To this day, if the clouds get dark, my eyes are open to the sky and my phone calls start to my adult kids to make sure they are watching. I will admit, I am a basket case when it comes to storms and I am very lucky that my family understands and don't fuss too much about the phone calls.

 

Leesa Stanbro Siems

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 17, 2008)
I had just celebrated my 12th birthday when the storm struck. I originally moved to Charles City with my family in February, 1962 therefore I had six years of life in the "old” Charles City prior to the storm.

My father, now retired, was an independent insurance agent in Charles City which brought the storm into our home for years after it struck. Getting people "back on their feet” was a big thing in the Sisson household.

As I recall, the spring of 1968 was very early. Photos of trees ‘in the distance” will clearly show foliage usually found in very late May or early June was evident. My guess is, spring was two and a half to three weeks ahead of schedule.

May 15, 1968 was a Wednesday. I clearly remember having breakfast that morning. It started sunny, windy and very warm. I would guess on my walk to Lincoln Elementary School, a distance of two blocks, the temperature at 8 AM was about 70 degrees and a strong southeast wind was at my back.

May 15, 1968 was a big day in Charles City for all of the fifth and sixth graders. It was the annual grade school track meet which started at noon with a picnic, followed by the competition. This event was held at the College Grounds on Clark Street about a dozen blocks east of the area to be devastated five hours later. Five grade schools, Lincoln, Jefferson, Central, McKinley and Washington Elementary participated in the fun. Central, McKinley and Washington were destroyed, the first two never to reopen.

I recall the wind switching to more of a southerly direction as the afternoon progressed and it got quite warm. My guess would be it reached nearly 85 degrees and it was very muggy. Winds were very gusty and the running course at the College Grounds was laid out east to west. We figured they did that because running to the south for kids of that age would have been hard that day.

When the track meet was over, we walked back to Lincoln school with the wind at our back. It was warm and I remember getting to the school (it had no air conditioning) and all of the windows at the school were wide open. I thought to myself, the student in K thru 4th must have roasted that afternoon and I was glad I had been outdoors.

Classes ended shortly after 330 PM then. We actually got back to the school about 315 PM and got to leave early. My brother and sister had to stay and I thought that was pretty neat.

I clearly remember walking two blocks home to 714 Third Avenue where we lived. It was warm, gusting winds and very muggy. It was sunny and hazy.

My brother and sister got home about 345 PM and at 4 PM we turned on "Bart's Clubhouse”, a children's show hosted by the KGLO-TV weatherman, Bart Curran. It was the typical, after school cartoon program for kids our age to watch.

I remember about 425 PM they broke into the show and reported a tornado sighting near Hansell, Iowa in eastern Franklin County. They reported the storm was moving northeast and people should pay attention to the TV. "Bart's Clubhouse” then came on the air.

I have always been interested in the weather, so I quit watching the show and went outside. I remember my sister, in the 4th grade at that time, yelling outside and telling me the TV said the tornado was by Marble Rock. About the same time, I'd guess 435 PM, my father came home from work proclaiming we needed to keep an eye out for the weather. My father and I stood outside and my mother, brother (in 3rd grade) and sister stayed inside the house.

When my father pulled in the driveway, we stood there for just a few minutes looking at the sky. It was getting black in the southwest. I remember looking straight up in the air and seeing these really strange clouds bulging down toward the ground. Something I have seen since, but never quite the way these looked. Just a minute or two later, about 445 PM it hailed. The size was enormous. I remember them coming down and splatting on our driveway and thundering off of my fathers International Scout. We ran up on the covered front porch which faced due west down Third Avenue.

About this time my mother yelled outside we'd better go to the basement as a tornado had been spotted on Charles Street on the far southwest side of Charles City. I recall my father saying Salsbury Laboratories was out there and he hoped it didn't get hit as he had it insured. My father and I stayed on the porch and watched. The other three in our family went to the basement and hid in a "cubby hole' we had in the southwest corner of the basement.

As my father and I watched we notice the clouds twisting, rotating from the southeast to the northwest. It was amazing to watch because there was very little breeze on the ground but still looked so violent. As we looked to the west above the treetops we could see "stuff” flying around in the air. I thought it was leaves and sticks, but would realize later it was huge chunks of debris. The wind then came up and blew very hard and we headed to the basement. I remember watching out a window that faced north and watching the tress move violently. The winds lasted a couple of minutes and then stopped.

We went upstairs to find limbs and leaves strewn about. My father said, let's load up and go see what happened and we headed down Third Avenue toward downtown Charles City. I remember seeing a small hard Maple Tree on the Frudden property at the corner of 4th Avenue and G Street had blown over. It was only about 6” in diameter, but it was down and I thought, wow, a tree was blown down. I think about that tree every time I drive by that spot. It was the first damage I'd seen, but was nothing compared to what I would find seven blocks further west.

Our entire family and a neighbor, Sally Rice, were loaded in my father's International Scout. Sally had three children in various locations all over town. Her husband, Dan, was the manager of our local utility, Iowa Public Service Company, and was at his office on Main Street. You can imagine how his life changed as the provider of utilities to the community of nearly 10,000.

When we reached the corner of Third and Grand Avenue, the steeple of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church had crashed down through the roof and left a huge hole. We couldn't believe our eyes as we looked up at the damage…bricks strewn all over the front steps and street as well. It was about this time when everyone in our vehicle looked west toward downtown Charles City and we were aghast. It looked like a bomb had hit. All I remember is seeing horrible destruction, people wandering in shock and streets clogged with debris, live wires and silence…this huge mess and no noise. It was truly "unbelievable”.

Mrs. Rice immediately feared for the life of her family. Some were located on the other side of the river and there was no way to walk or drive into the devastated area. Sally was frantic. Her children had been invited to an outdoor birthday party. My father decided to drive east, then south and back west of Charles City. During the approximately 20 mile drive to travel about half a mile as the crow flies, I specifically recall another intense thunderstorm moving in from the southwest. I would guess this would have been about 6 PM. The sky was black and there was vivid lightning. It was still warm and muggy.

We reached the south side of Charles City and went to the hospital located on the south side of town. Upon arrival cars were wrecked all over the lawn, but amazingly the hospital received little damage, yet a farmstead a half mile or so to the south was flattened. It was about this time we received word, I can't recall how, but Mrs. Rice's children were safe. We headed back home on the same route. I recall heavy rain, lots of thunder and lightning and the temperature getting steadily colder.

I remember the wail of sirens, the sound of chain saws and people yelling. About 930 PM that night my father, whose insurance office had been destroyed, realized how his life had changed and decided to load the three of us kids in a car with a neighbor who was headed out of town with his children and we went to my grandparents to stay for a few days in Waterloo, 50 miles to the south. When we were leaving town, I recall our dusk to dawn radio station was still on the air which seemed strange is it was dark. The announcer was reading the names of people who were safe, those of the injured and names of those who had died. I recall the radio pleading for blood, blankets and supplies, chain saws, heavy equipment and food. They were also reporting on shelter locations and talking about the National Guard and a curfew. It was strange to hear. I remember as we traveled south, the radio station fading out and arriving in Waterloo in time to watch the 10 PM news and the sketchy reports of which I had specifics of what we had experienced a few hours earlier.

Here are a few specific things I recall:

The big grain elevator had been destroyed on the south side of Charles City which resulted in corn being distributed all over town. The next summer corn was growing everywhere in town, out of cracks in sidewalks, out of the bark in the few trees left and along the street in the parking area. It was strange.

Businesses had to build protected walkways from the curb to the door for customer access as debris fell to the street from the tops of the building once in a while.

Cars, thousands of them, were destroyed and hauled to Lions Field. I remember them being stacked like cord wood on the site of the old football field.

The First Baptist Church had a long 2” by 4” driven into the brick near the entrance. I remember it looked like an arrow sticking out of the brick. It seemed like there were always people standing looking at it in amazement.

Any trees left standing were full of metal of all kinds. Limbs caught flying objects, some of which are still found to this day when they are trimmed or cut down.

I remember a never ending plume of smoke and fire at the Shaw Avenue dump site as debris was hauled and burned continuously for months following the storm.

About a week after the storm someone took me (I can't remember who) to the top floor of the St. Charles Hotel which was destroyed. I remember the rooms were a mess, some with bed mattresses half pulled out the windows. In the far northwest corner of the top floor the walls had been peeled off and I recall seeing maybe a thousand robins splattered on the walls and laying on the floor. A flock must have gotten caught in the wind. My father and mother would have been mad if they knew I went up there so I never told them.

I remember everyone was amazed and talked about how the churches and schools were destroyed but the bars escaped damage. People said this was because the bars were open and the churches and schools weren't.

I remember seeing all of the clocks stopped at 8 minutes til 5 PM.

At the Jim and Diane Crandall residence on the north end of Charles City all I remember them having left were a few pipes sticking out of the floor and the different colors of carpet on the floors, the bathtub remained, but the toilet and vanity were gone. I remember if it wasn't fastened down it was gone. In their backyard bulldozers had pushed all of the debris to the center of the block into a huge pile. I recall seeing washers and dryers, freezers, lawn mowers and lots of things in the pile that seemed 30 to 40 feet tall. Every block in the devastated area had a pile like this.

 

Jeff Sisson

I was 2 when the tornado hit. We were living 5 miles north of Charles City in a rented farm house. My dad was working in town for Dick's 66(the old Buy Low by Mcdonalds). He saw it coming and grabbed the money outof the register and stuffed it into a bank bag and ran across the street and got underneath a park bench that was cemented to the ground next to the river and hung on for dear life. Hr escaped with minor cuts and scratches. Back at home we lost everything except for the north wall of the house. The door going through that wall was to mom and dads bedroom, on the otherside of the door was pair of overalls hanging on a hook that were untouched(amazing how it picks and chooses what to destroy). We were selected to receive help from Max Anus from New York gave my mom and dad a check for a down payment on the house they lived in for almost 40 years(where I grew up on 18th Ave.). That was about the best thing that happened after that day in May.

 

Eric Spurbeck

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on June 8, 2008)
I was seven years old on that day in 1968 and I remember vividly the whole day. I was attending McKinley School in the first grade and it was a very hot, windy day, as I recall. After school, I can recall walking past leon & Genes Texaco to stop and gawk at the wrecks they had recently towed in.

I was walking across the relatively new Brantingham Bridge on my way home. We had just moved only three days prior to the corner of Fourth and B Street right on Highway 18. I used to live on South Johnson street before that.

As I did about every afternoon, I switched on the ol' black and white T.V. to see Bart's Clubhouse. I recall Bart Curran, who was the stations weather man, telling us that a storm had hit Oelwein and I recall that he had an Iowa map on his knee with a ruler laying on it. He said, "Kids, if you live on either side of where I'm holding this ruler on the map, you have a storm coming your way. " Well, it was laid right smack dab through Charles City.

I was pretty agitated. I was telling my folks we had better do something, but both Mom and dad were incredulous and said to keep calm.

Well, things started looking bad. It got dark. Then it got darker. The rain started in, and then hail. Lots of hail bouncing off the highway, as I remember. Then I was called to the supper table as we ate right at 5:00 pm sharp every night.

Mom was serving up the fried eggs, beans, and toast when the lights went out. I looked out the open side door through the screen to see a passing car go by. Mom said, "There's funny clouds going round and round... "as she peered out side. Dad yelled, "Get in the basement! " I was the first to the door, but as I had never been in that basement yet, I pulled up and stopped, peering into the dank blackness. My Dad grabbed me and I turned for one last look out that door to see a huge Basswood tree falling across the highway. The rumble, rumble, rumble down the stairs and crouching near a basement window. My Dad was peering out tentatively. Mom was holding my younger sister Laurie who was crying. We could hear crashing and glass breaking upstairs.

What seemed like an hour, but was in reality about a minute, passed and I recall the thunderous roar subsiding, a high pitched whistling noise fading away, and then brilliant sunshine!

We crawled out from that basement to a world that was forever etched into my memory banks.

Walking around town, I saw the car that had passed our house just before the tornado hit smashed on it's top. I was shocked thinking that the person driving it might still be in that car, dead....or worse!

Clothes flapping in the trees, dazed and confused people wandering around, and total devastaion everywhere just west of our resisdence. It was amazing!

We had kerosene lamps on that night and for several nights afterwards. When we finally went to bed, I recall looking out my window seeing my Dad directing traffic on Highway 18 through our yard to help cars avoid the hot wire laying in the road. Sirens screamed all night long. I recall having a very difficult time falling asleep.

In the days afterwards we watched bulldozers knock stuff down and cart it away in dump trucks. The utility man came by about a week later to check on our gas and electric service. He had many stories to tell of how people had gone through that day that I'll never forget.

I thought it was a bad deal since as a kid, you couldn't go play anywhere for parents fear of you getting cut, knocked out by falling debris, or falling into open basements and refuse piles.

I remember people wearing "Tornado City " sweatshirts and t-shirts in the years just after the storm. I wonder if anybody still has one of those.

In later years, it was always cool to scavenge for bicycles that were strewn about the edges and wild places around Charles city. This was the beginnings of my love for cycling, and I am a bicycle mechanic now in 2008.

Dark skies still bring on that ominous feeling. I suppose I'll never get over that.

 

Mark Stevenson

Account: The Charles City Press'; 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 15, 2008)
I am still frightened whenever I think of the monstrous tornado that ripped through Charles City. I remember well the F5 tornado that left 13 people dead and 450 injured in Charles City, Iowa on May 15, 1968. We're still afraid and it's going, to stay with us. I'm just thankful that we're here.

I was six months pregnant at the time and I wasn't riding out the storm in the basement of her home on Jackson Street. I was going to pick up my husband, Tracy, from work at The Oliver Corporation, a tractor manufacturer in town. That Wednesday was Tracy's last day, as he was being laid off. While I waited in my white 1966 Plymouth Valiant near the door my husband usually exited, it began raining. The sky looked ominous. Sensing trouble, she turned on the radio to hear the announcer there was a funnel cloud sighted over Charles City's south side.

Being on the north side of town, I thought I had time to warn the people inside The Oliver Corporation building. I remember going in, but the workers thought nothing of her warning. So I went back out to her car to wait for Tracy. That's when all the horror started.

One of Tracy's friends and co-workers, Jerry Fifer, came out to tell me that my husband was waiting inside the personnel office door, about a block away from where I was parked. As I started driving through the parking lot, Fifer jumped right in front of the car to warn me that I was driving right into the tornado. "He jumped into the car and said, 'There it is! "' I would have driven right into it. I didn't see it, it was so massive. It was just like a big black tidal wave. I put the car into reverse to get away from the twister. As we were going backwards, Fifer saw a brick wall collapsing behind them, so I immediately stopped and then went forward to avoid that. Having avoided the most pressing dangers, I stopped the car. I never took the car out of gear. I had my foot on the brake the whole time and I was praying like you would not believe.

To avoid getting struck by the broken glass of the windows, we rolled our windows down, put on their seat belts and hung on to each other and the steering wheel. Fifer covered me with my raincoat to protect me from flying debris. And with that, we rose off the ground, I say 15 feet maximum. I had nothing to be fearful of because I hadn't witnessed it. I was underneath the raincoat. I never realize how far off the ground the twister actually took us. I didn't find out until 1992 in chatting with Fifer that we were four stories off the ground, high enough to see the top of the smokestack of a nearby building.

With that, I almost got sick to my stomach. Every time I think of this, I get shaky. It's not a pleasant thought. And when we came down, we came down with a thud. I went into labor pains a few hours later, but they were false. "

When the tornado had passed, we got out of the car to survey the damage. The Plymouth had four blown tires from the impact, many dents and scratches from the hall and other flying debris. A downed light pole nearly missed hitting the car. All of the car's windows, including those rolled down, were unbroken.

After finding their 8-year-old daughter, Sally, unharmed by the storm at my mother's house, they went home, but couldn't find it. All that was left was rubble. No walls remained standing. It looked like a street bombed out after Hiroshima. We didn't know where we were. There was nothing left.

The only death suffered close to the family was their dog, Clancy. However, I knew six of the 13 folks that lost their lives. Among those were Harry Hall, 65, the washing machine repairman at Sears. Gus Mertens, 67, the shoe repairman, also lost his life. Murray Loomer, 70, who was the Sweet's neighbor on Jackson Street, was found dead on his front porch.

All of Charles City's eight churches sustained some damage. The downtown mall was badly damaged, as was Cedar Terrace, an apartment complex for the elderly. The complex was later rebuilt on the same site.

Most of our worldly possessions were destroyed, including Sally's extensive Barbie collection. Sally had all the Barbie amenities--the suitcases, all the outfits, and even the hair grooming tools. However, I knew we had the best thing left. I never ever shed a tear because I was just so thankful that we were alive. If we ever won the lottery, this was it.

We couldn't rebuild on the site of their old home because the city rezoned the area, thinking there would likely be commercial development in that area. Where their house once stood now stands storage garages.

If we happen to drive up that street, I always think of it. It was a strange day. And every time I hear the tornado sirens, it makes me think of that day. Jerry Fifer is my angel. If he had not stopped me, I would have driven right into it. For as long as I am alive the memories of that tornado will be me. I started to watch (the movie) Twister in 1998 and I shut it off. I couldn't go through it.

 

 

Sherry Sweet

Account: from an interview with Anne Lieb, Roger Kuznia, Computer Assisted Reporting back in the Fall of 1998

My 2 sons, Dean age 5 and Kurt 3 on tornado date, were with their grandmother Florene Leach of whom was one of the deceased from the horrible day. They were on their way to the basement of the Leach home on N Grand Ave when it hit. Dean was found by the foundation of where the garage used to be and Kurt was by his grandma's side next to the house foundation and where an object had fallen on Florene and crushed her. She passed on her way to the Waverly Hospital in ambulance and the two boys were located by Red Cross of which contacted their mother Melodee. Melodee had been searching for her sons for 4 hrs before learning where and what hospital they were taken. The boys were young enough not to remember the drama, but their mother, Melodee will never forget or get over the feeling of the fear of what happened to her sons until they were located.

Melodee herself, was at work at the Melody Lounge and was thrown in the basement by her boss as she frozen when watching the funnel cloud over the Luthern church coming toward the town with lots of debris in the funnel. A motorcycle took her to the N end of town to where her in-laws house used to be and nothing but the basement was left. There was a kite put together laying there, but yet a freezer full of food, and all other heavy appliances and furniture were gone. When reaching that location a neighbor Mrs. Rausch told her that Florene and the boys had been taken to the hospital. Naturally, you would think Charles City hospital, so there she went. She contacted Mr (Leland) Leach there as was the janitor for Hospital. He did not know his home was gone, when asked where Florene and the boys were, he replied that they were home. Melodee then told him there was no home left and they were to be at hospital. He and nurses checked all the halls, rooms and morgue. They were no where to be found. Melodee was told to go back to her house and wait as they had the Red Cross checking other locations.

Virgil Jacobson, family friend and with the Red Cross told Melodee's parents when they reached the hospital looking for Melodee and sons, that the boys were at the Waverly hospital. They went to Melodee's and found Mr Leach and told him the Florene did not survive and he had to go to Nashua for phone service and gasoline to contact his children and then on to Waverly to meet with Melodee. Melodee found her 2 blond headed boys together in one room. Only they had darker hair, due to the dirt that was inbedded in their heads. They had been given tetanus shots and just had a few cuts and scrapes. They were very lucky and VERY HAPPY to see their mother. They were released the next day. Their mother still has the shirts that the boys were wearing that day.

Melodee White

Account: The Charles City Press' a href="https://charlescitypress.blogspot.com/2008/04/1968-charles-city-tornado.html">1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 13, 2008)
My sister was going to grade school at McKinley School, I can still remember her crying when she saw the devastation of her school. I was only 4 years old at the time but at least partially understood the impact that this massive storm made on the community. We live 7 to 8 miles from the path of the storm but still felt the impact of the winds. We had a machine shed blown off its foundation right next to our house.

 

Brian Wulff

May 15th is an anniversary that I have rarely forgotten in these last forty years. Can it have been forty years?

I was a junior in high school and also a telephone operator for the telephone company. That morning I had stayed home from school and at noon I walked to the junior high to get a bus to the high school. I remember stopping on the corner of Jackson and Ferguson. I just stopped and noticed the air and the sky and the feeling all around me. Now I call that pre-tornado air. It felt unusual but I didn't know what it was at the time.

After school I went to work. We used the old switchboard with all its cords and switches, which is now ancient history. We were the telephone operators for a large area including Rudd, Nashua, Marble Rock and a lot of small towns. At some point, we started to get people calling in and reporting that there was a tornado. We relayed the information to the sheriff's office. People were calling in but it didn't make sense since they were calling in from different areas. We couldn't have known then that there were separate tornadoes that would come together outside of Charles City. People called in, "There's a tornado in my back yard!” "Go to the basement!” we told them. I can still recall the disbelief in their voices. There were so many calls like that.

Then, about ten to five the tornado began its rumbling journey through town. For us at the telephone company, there was nowhere to go so we just kept answering calls. When we could hear it approaching, we all jumped under the switchboard, covered our faces and then heard the roof come off and people's screams. One woman was dragged from one end of the room to another. I was huddled beside a person and I remember hearing her say, "Oh, my gosh!” I could tell she watching it and was not covering herself and I gave her a hit and said, "Cover your face!”

Finally, all was silent. Absolutely silent. It was a silence and stillness that I shall never forget. Nothing moved. Not us and certainly not a bird or leaf or anything. My eyes were still closed and all kinds of thoughts went through my mind. Finally we heard the choked-up voice of one of the men who had come into the room from the back equipment area. He said, "Is anybody ok?” Not, "Is everybody ok?” but "Is anybody ok?” When he saw the room, he imagined that we all might be dead. The sound of his voice brought us all back and we scrambled out and from under the debris. There were some injuries but we were very fortunate.

The mind does funny things to protect itself in these situations. I remember looking across the street at the house on the corner. I could see the refrigerator and said, "Oh, that house is fine.” The school kitty corner from us was almost gone but somehow, seeing the remaining walls, I felt it was just damaged. Now I understand that I was in shock.

The telephone equipment could not be used so we went out of the building, each looking for his or her family. Somehow, I started down what must have been Wisconsin. We stopped along the way inquiring about people who were coming up out of their basements. "Yes, I'm fine” one old woman said who had blood on her face, and so on down the road. People were very civil and congenial.

I passed by a car dealership where people were attending to someone who had been hurt. I asked if there was anything I could do. I walked further and then turned around and on the way back inquired again if I could help. No, they said, noone could help him. It was at that moment that I could begin to see the reality of what had happened. A man who had been living moments before was dead. I looked around. I did not have to "go outside” as everything was "outside”. I looked at the St. Charles Hotel and could see that the windows had all been blown out, curtains dangling out the windows.

At that moment, for the first time, I thought seriously about my family. Previously, I just could not imagine that they would not be ok. Suddenly seeing it all, I started to run, a bandage trailing behind me like a tail. When I got to Richings, I ran down the street and met my Dad, Joe Byrne. He was on his way to walk to his mother's house. Seeing him, I just threw myself in his arms and began to weep. Everyone was ok, he said. He was going to check on Grandma, Hazel Byrne. I continued down the street and got into the house and although I was full of shock and wanted to cry out, I saw my young brothers and sisters and I didn't want to frighten them more than they were already frightened so I began to complain about the small cut on my leg.

I changed my clothes and went out again to see if there was some way I could help. I could go on and on about all the experiences and I never tire of hearing the experiences of others.

I met a woman at Trowbridges who was terrified because her daughter's house across from Trowbridges was gone. Only the open basement remained. She was out of control. She said she was in no condition to drive her car so I told her that I would drive her out to the hospital. We drove over trees and debris and it is truly amazing that we made it there. I remember the expression on her face! Perhaps my driving helped take her mind off the situation. Her daughter's family was not there at the hospital and by the time we got back to where her daughter's house had been (she drove!), there was a sign there that all were ok and giving their location.

That night the air was filled with chain saws, the sounds of ambulances and police cars and fear and sadness.

A day or two later, as I was walking down Richings toward downtown, I saw a robin. I stopped in my tracks to watch her. She was busy picking up some sticks and she must have been working to make a new nest. On the corner of Jackson and Richings I saw a retired man pounding on his roof fixing it. Although it was many years before I "got over” the event, now I know that both were signs from God that life would go on.

Maybe we never "get over” an event of such proportions. If you ask anyone who was there in Charles City that day, you will hear a story. I honor the people who died and those who suffered and those who worked to recreate Charles City. In the midst of it all, I remember the kindnesses of people whose names are long forgotten and the heart of a good people who do whatever they can do to help one another. Those are things worth remembering.

 

Rosemary Byrne Yokoi

Account: The Charles City Press' 1968 Charles City Tornado Blog (Submitted on May 13, 2008)
I was in junior high school in Cedar Rapids in 1968. There was the most incredible display of mammatus I have ever seen, or ever will see (an that's not just because I'm living in Arizona now). A friend of mine dated a girl from Oelwein. She survived by getting into a closet.

 

Mike Bruce

I was at the firehouse on the late afternoon of May 15, 1968 when the tornado struck. But Rundle says there was no warning that a devastating storm was coming. He says it was actually two tornadoes that started south of Oelwein and then merged into one and headed into Oelwein.

 

I started to see hail come down, "and the next thing I knew people were running past the station looking over their shoulders. " One woman died in the storm.

We rescued the woman from an apartment in the downtown area, as she had fallen down between two floors when the chimney blew out. The woman was taken to the Oelwein hospital where she later died from her injuries. The storm caused massive damage to the do wntown and eastern side of the city. They talked about damage in the millions at the time, and now it would be in the tens of millions in today's dollars.

The tornado went right down railroad tracks through town and by the fire station. All the downed trees kept firefighters from getting a lot of equipment in the residential areas, and they ended up walking to rescues and climbing through trees.

The tornado is still talked about. You can't get a much worse tornado, and they always talk about the Oelwein tornado when he goes to weather training classes. The warning systems and radar are much more sophisticated today, but at the time there wasn't much time for anyone to be ready for the storm.

 

 

Wally Rundle, Oelwein Fire Chief

Account: interview with Roger King, KOEL in 2006

Acknowledgements

The National Weather Service office in La Crosse, WI would like to sincerely thank the following for their assistance in compiling the information contained in this web site:
  • Steve Carr, Communications Specialist, at NewspaperARCHIVE.com
  • Mark Wicks, Managing Editor, Charles City Press
  • Deb Kunkle, City Editor, Oelwein Daily Register
  • Professor Perry Samson, University of Michigan's Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic & Space Sciences
  • Greg Carbin, NCEP Storm Prediction Center
  • Harry Hillaker, Iowa State Climatologist
  • Jeff Sisson for providing his personal account and pictures of the Charles City aftermath
  • Significant Tornadoes: 1680-1991, Thomas P. Grazulis
  • Seth Binau, NWS Wilmington Science and Operations Officer
  • Todd Shea, NWS La Crosse Warning Coordination Meteorologist
  • Tornado History Project
  • All the individuals who so graciously shared their accounts, despite the tragic memories it brought back for many.