May 25 tornado, Parkersburg, Iowa
June 4, 2008 5:03 PM   Subscribe

The (U.S.) National Weather Service has released its report on a strong tornado that occured in Iowa the evening of May 25th. On the evening of May 25th, 2008 a tornado rated at EF5 (estimated wind speed was around 205 MPH!!) obliterated half of the town of Parkersburg, Iowa. Eight people have died, and 70 were injured. Here is a PDF containing incredible pictures of the damage (taken by employees of the NWS during their survey).

there are a bunch more pictures on flickr, as well.
posted by ArgentCorvid (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
NWS has also issued a forecast of a potentially-severe tornado outbreak in the US Midwest tomorrow; here's hoping we won't be seeing another of these reports in the near future.
posted by ubernostrum at 5:18 PM on June 4, 2008

Here is a video of the tornado. It's slowed down here, but real time it only took five seconds for this house to be demolished.
posted by Homeskillet Freshy Fresh at 5:26 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also, a somewhat-related shameless plug (online feature from the paper I work for): a one-year-later look at Greensburg, Kansas, which was wiped off the map last year by an EF5 tornado, and which narrowly missed being hit again last month.
posted by ubernostrum at 5:38 PM on June 4, 2008

Holy crap that's awesome. When I was a kid I wanted to see a tornado in real life, but I changed my mind.
posted by RussHy at 6:05 PM on June 4, 2008

posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 6:18 PM on June 4, 2008

Well, at least I'll have time enough to read. Oops. That's–that's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was, was all the time I needed... ! It's not fair! (Henry Beemis)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:29 PM on June 4, 2008 [4 favorites]

Truly awesome. But 205 mph doesn't hold a candle to the May 3, 1999 tornado that ripped through central Oklahoma, where the wind speed was clocked at 318 mph.

Tornadoes are the most amazing natural weather event.
posted by davidmsc at 6:47 PM on June 4, 2008

Just another humbling reminder that we are all guests on this planet.
posted by JimmyJames at 6:47 PM on June 4, 2008

I sort of always wanted to see one, too. Instead, just a lot of hiding in the basement listening to the radio. The sky turned green once.
posted by flotson at 6:48 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'll keep my earthquakes, thanks. Chaotically whirling vortexes of windy death (along with monster hail and lightning) just sound so much less pleasant than having the ground rock and roll every few years.
posted by loquacious at 7:13 PM on June 4, 2008

I was outside in PA as a kid when a small tornado came through. It was awesome.
posted by BrotherCaine at 7:25 PM on June 4, 2008

But 205 mph doesn't hold a candle to the May 3, 1999 tornado that ripped through central Oklahoma, where the wind speed was clocked at 318 mph.

In 1999, they were still using the original Fujita scale, which tended to overestimate wind speeds. You don't "clock" a tornado's wind, you guess based on what the damage looks like. From the NWS's page on the EF scale, it looks like the highest wind speed you can infer from damage is about 220mph. So it's possible that the 318mph is an overestimate.

Incidentally, the upper end of the old F scale is exactly 318mph, so I think that USA Today might have heard "F5" and then published that number in the interest of excitement instead of actually having a source that said "the wind was exactly 318mph".

Finally, the difference between 200mph and 300mph is "my house is completely gone" to "my house is completely gone", so it doesn't really matter either way. If you see something with 200mph winds, don't say "this isn't as bad as the 1999 Oklahoma City tornado". Get somewhere safe intead :)

Just another humbling reminder that we are all guests on this planet.

On this planet, yes... but if you go in the planet (your basement), you'll probably be OK.
posted by jrockway at 7:26 PM on June 4, 2008

Wow. Amazing photos. Thanks.
posted by gingerbeer at 7:29 PM on June 4, 2008

@jrockway: I was about to say the same thing re the difference between 200 MPH and 300 MPH.

And loquacious, tornadoes are really, really bad if you happen to be in the path of one, but you (usually) have a good idea when one is coming for you. Earthquakes, not so much.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:47 PM on June 4, 2008

The scary thing about tornadoes is that you don't really know if you're really in the path until it's too late. It's the anticipation that always scared the fuck out of me.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:06 PM on June 4, 2008

Of course, the two times I've been in earthquakes was when I lived in Iowa.
posted by dirigibleman at 8:07 PM on June 4, 2008

I moved to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada ten years after the big tornado hit. Ten years and people would still watch the skies and wait. I talked to a few people who had gone through it - one said that she was in her apartment on the far west side of the city (so they were spared). She said that she was cooking and looked outside and it looked like it was dusk. She went out onto the balcony and, "the bottom of the clouds looked like they were formed by egg cartons. Lots of huge, round bumps on the bottom and the wind was going crazy. You just know what's going to happen then... I went back in to call my husband and by the time we got back outside, it was completely silent and there was no wind at all and the clouds - well, everywhere - had gone as black as midnight. It was unnatural. And we just watched the funnel form until the winds picked up too much to stand around. You have to leave the windows open so they don't get blown out, and we just prayed."
I worked at a place that had the tornado pass just about right over the building. The decks for building roof trusses were anchored to the ground using 1/2 inch bolts. One of the guys said he just crawled under the (40' steel-girder) table and hung onto the legs. "The biggest freight train you ever heard. I just shut my eyes and waited for it to finish. What else can you do? If it hadn't stopped where it did, it would've hit Refinery Row [aka the PetroCan fields to the NW on the Google map], and Sherwood Park [a suburb to the very near east] wouldn't be on the map." I saw the areal pics, (the truss place had lumber in the yards) and it looked like a kid had come along and scattered the wood like matchsticks.

The people's reactions in the CBC vid really sum up the sheer terror, or at least its aftermath, and I'm sure it's the same in Iowa. Not something I'd wish on anyone.
posted by Zack_Replica at 8:19 PM on June 4, 2008

I saw the areal aerial pics...
posted by Zack_Replica at 8:22 PM on June 4, 2008

Well, jrockway, after working Red Cross relief in the aftermath of several tornadoes in OK, KS, and TX I can tell you that you can certainly tell a difference between this tornado's effect and the May 3, 1999 tornado.

May 3, 1999:
More than 10,000 homes destroyed. 45 dead. The only things left standing in the direct path were foundations and pipe stubs, even the asphalt road was stripped in some areas. In some areas of Moore, OK there were two city blocks stripped down to the foundation, the resulting debris strewn upon the surrounding two or three blocks to each side.

An airplane wing with ID markings was found near Stroud, OK, about 60 miles from the airport at which it was parked in Chickasha.

The path could be seen from the sky for almost two years - no yellow lines needed. It was on the ground for 80 miles and the damage zone was almost a mile across in some places.

Huge difference, maybe not via the anemometers, but certainly via the magnitude of the area affected.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:39 PM on June 4, 2008

Wow, upon reflection I didn't mean to come off sounding like a tornado snob and all. I'm sure all tornado victims share a strikingly similar set of harrowing experiences.
posted by HyperBlue at 8:58 PM on June 4, 2008

And loquacious, tornadoes are really, really bad if you happen to be in the path of one, but you (usually) have a good idea when one is coming for you. Earthquakes, not so much.

I'll still take the earthquakes, as long as I reside somewhere with decent building engineering codes. Earthquakes hardly ever actually kill anyone where there's good engineering. The ground moves and rocks and rolls for a few minutes and then it stops. You pick up some stuff knocked off of shelves, maybe clean a little broken glass and go on.

Earthquake prediction is getting more feasible, too. The USGS already publishes an earthquake "prediction map" of sorts that shows the likelihood of a quake in a given area over a given timeframe. Like checking the weather, I check that map daily or every few days (along with recently detected quakes), and I even have an SMS service that messages me if a quake over a certain size happens in my defined areas. I have two alerts set, one threshold at 4.5 for the greater Bay Area, and 5.5 for the rest of California. It doesn't alert me very often.

However, if it does alert me, and it alerts me fast enough it can function as an earthquake alarm, possibly giving me a few seconds to react before the quake actually makes it here. A couple of months ago there was a 5-something down near Baja California, and I received the alert just as I was about to walk under a big stack of freeway overpasses. I stopped to check out the message and identify the location before continuing towards and under the bridges. If the alert had been for SF/Bay Area, I probably wouldn't have proceeded under the bridges.


Err, anyway. All other things put aside, I suppose it's purely an aesthetic issue. Tornados are chaotic, unpredictable things once they're on the ground and chewing it up. They're vortexes. Vortexes are freaky. Complexity is freaky. Highly concentrated wind is freaky. Tornados are one of the things on my list that I can simply do without, along with snow, ice storms, blizzards, hurricanes, extreme instabilities, hail the size of cats and lightning everywhere.

Watch, we're going to have a quake in the Bay Area now, just to teach me a lesson. Ah, well, we're overdue anyway. *refills water jugs*
posted by loquacious at 9:02 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

That was a scary day, even miles away in Des Moines. My family was visiting from Northeast Iowa, and a lot of our time was spent in my aunt and uncle's living room in the suburbs watching huge storm cells head straight for my house and my parents' house in Dubuque. My sister and I even had to time our 20 minute drive back to downtown to avoid the worst of it.

I'm at work right now, and I can see there's going to be some storms while I'm here tonight. If a tornado rolls through here, there is no basement. Just a windowless bathroom.
posted by TrialByMedia at 9:07 PM on June 4, 2008

I was a grad student down at OU when the Moore, OK tornado hit, and I knew Dr. Wurman and his Doppler On Wheels crew. The 318 mph was based on a measurement with the DOWs, but it was a "back of the envelope" calculation. Later calculations were much lower. You can read about it here. It does get pretty technical, but the gist of it was that the DOW measurements from the tornado were around 95 meters per second, or about 212.5 mph. Although there is some thought that the measurements were tainted by large debris that was moving slower than the wind.

Since DOW data from any tornado, let alone one F5/EF5 in size, is very rare, we are still pretty much stuck with estimating winds through damage. The EF scale has tried to take into account construction practices and more realistic wind speed estimates. However, it is still an imperfect system.

As a side note, with the Moore tornado in 1999 and the Greensburg, KS tornado last year, I have now been within 50 miles of two F5/EF5 tornadoes. Although I didn't actually *see* either of them.

On preview, the Moore tornado will hold the record for deaths and damage for a while, since it unfortunately plowed right through a major metro area. The Greensburg and Parkersburg storms affected mainly rural areas and small towns, although it was very devastating for the residents of those towns. I've seen the 1999 OKC tornado paths plotted on the Dallas metro, and the Greensburg paths plotted on the OKC metro, and the destruction could have been much worse in both cases. But if you've lost your house, it probably doesn't matter much how strong or where exactly in the record books the tornado falls.
posted by weathergal at 9:10 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I moved to Iowa City a year after a tornado hit, and moved away a year before another major tornado hit, which destroyed this church, right across from where I used to live.

But I did live through the tornado that went through Saxonburg, PA in May of 1995. It honestly was the most terrifying experience I've ever had. That night, I was 8 years old, getting my Bobcat, or Wolf, or something from Cub Scouts.

It was announced about halfway through the ceremonies that a tornado had touched down and we should seek shelter. We were on the second floor of a clearly inadequate building (this is a theme in all my tornado warning experiences). Some muckety-muck in the higher echelons of Cub Scouting said, "This place is adequate, good construction, we should just stay here." Even at eight years old, I knew the guy was full of shit. We'd be dead if that tornado hit us. Even more so than if we did the sensible thing and moved to the ground floor. Geez. After I got my Bobcat or Wolf or whatever it was I got that night, I begged my parents to take me home. Of course, driving in a car that night would have been even more stupid that sitting on the second floor of a warehouse-like structure during a tornado, so they said no.

About 27 hours later (or so it seemed to me), we finished with the ceremony, and finally moved downstairs, like the radio reports told us to. We were told that the tornado had ended, so we could go home. Four people died that night, including a babysitter and the kid she was watching. I didn't know them, but I was a classmate of a family whose house was completely obliterated down to the foundation.

Later I moved to Iowa City, right at the tip of tornado alley. I remember the first of many severe thunderstorms there being glued to the radio thinking, "Damn, if a tornado hits here, I have nowhere to go. This place is completely inadequate to protect me." As the years went by, I became less jittery, but the thought was always in the back of my mind.

I moved out of state about a year before the tornado hit that destroyed the church across the street. A few months after I moved, I was involved in a pretty scary car accident. I T-boned a pickup on a highway. I was able to brake quickly enough that the accident for both of us was survivable, but we both sustained injuries. I never had time that day to get scared. After the accident, I realized how close I had come to death (a car without airbags, or ABS, and I might seriously have died), and it jolted me, but it never sent the utter terror I felt that May night when a killer tornado swept through my town. Am I going to die tonight? I don't know, roll the dice and see which way the tornado goes. Across the street? I guess you're OK. Not the people across the street, though.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:59 PM on June 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

That should be 1985. Dammit.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:59 PM on June 4, 2008

Personally, I'll take tornadoes over earthquakes any day of the week. Tornadoes are usually easily avoidable. They affect a very small area at any given time. With enough warning (which is easy if you pay attention) you can take the necessary precautions (such as leaving the area in the path of the storm)

Hail is the same way, although different parts of Tulsa did get damaging hail this year and a couple of small tornadoes touched down in the area, as well as the EF4 in Picher. It's been a pretty active year, I suppose.

In any event, even an EF3 is pretty darn rare, and EF3s are very survivable if the structure you are in is built at all well. A few years back an F3 (this was before the new scale) crossed a road I often travel and struck a chicken farm alongside it. Nearly brand new, too. The chicken houses were destroyed, and the house itself was severely damaged, but there was plenty of interior space where one could survive unscathed. It looked a lot worse than it was.

Anyway, the nice thing about tornadoes is that the area stricken is not so widespread as with a major earthquake. It's not likely to cause a city to be without essential services, unless it's a big tornado and a small town, or it just happens to rake the water treatment plant (as one example). Major earthquakes are a much bigger deal, although probably just as rare as a major tornado in terms of likely to strike a given individual living in a zone of elevated risk.
posted by wierdo at 11:42 PM on June 4, 2008

I'll take tornadoes in an area without storm shelters over earthquakes in an area without adequate seismic engineering (new madrid fault zone), but with preparedness, my opinion flips. Of course, a lot of places get both.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:16 AM on June 5, 2008

I grew up on the far east side of Indianapolis. I can recall one spring being outside with a couple of friends watching the ominous clouds swirl and form. We spotted one cloud that featured some very definite and strong rotation. We kept watching it as it passed overhead, and travelled further to the east, it's rotation becoming more and more definite and that tell-tail cone beginning to drop from the cloud mass. As it got further away, the cone elongated even further until it appeared to finally reach the ground, maybe 5 miles away.

It's one of those uncommon childhood memories.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:47 AM on June 5, 2008

The eerie thing about this tornado? They're picking up debris from Parkersburg families here in Wisconsin.
posted by thanotopsis at 5:34 AM on June 5, 2008

I really really wish I had a basement.
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:30 AM on June 5, 2008

thirteenkiller- yea, last summer a small tornado went down the rio grande valley west of santa fe and I thought to myself, no one is this whole state has a basement.
posted by MNDZ at 7:50 AM on June 5, 2008

The eighth person linked to in the FPP is the aunt of a friend of mine from church. Looking at the pictures, its really amazing that more people didn't die.

We were out of town for the weekend, and had loaned our car to a friend who left the moon roof open the day of the tornado. The tornado didn't come near Cedar Rapids (~40 miles from Parkersberg), but we got tons of rain. I had about 3 inches of water in my cup holders...
posted by jpdoane at 9:05 AM on June 5, 2008

I grew up in Tornado Alley and remember being hustled into the bathroom a couple times. I remember my parents driving us over toe Grandmother's house for the '74 Brookside tornado (which is something since I was only 2 at the time). My relatives in Edmond went through the '86 tornado.

I now live in Seattle, where we know that sometime soon the Seattle Fault will slip and we'll have a 6.5-7.0 in the heart of the city. And we all know that at some point the Juan de Fuca Plate will yield another 9.0 monster that will probably leave Seattle in ruins. I've been through two quakes.

If I had a choice, I'd take the tornadoes over the earthquakes. But since I like Seattle more than Tulsa, I have to live with the earthquakes.
posted by dw at 10:55 AM on June 5, 2008

BrotherCaine: The problem with that is that even in California, many if not most structures are still substandard from a seismic engineering standpoint.

In my experience tornado watching (on radar, from my couch at home), the stronger storms would be easy to avoid. It's the weaker ones that won't likely harm you that occur without a large amount of warning time. Most significant tornadoes are dropped by long lasting supercell thunderstorms that have a history of tornadic activity, as did the one I mentioned earlier, which I watched on radar as it went from west of Oklahoma City all the way into northwest Arkansas. (obviously not producing tornadoes the entire time)

While a car might not be a good place in a tornado, with the typical slow movers and half an hour's warning, you can be far away if need be. Of course if everybody did that, severe congestion would ensue and people would die en masse on the roads. :p
posted by wierdo at 11:02 AM on June 5, 2008

for some reason, i'd rather take the random nature of a tornado than the inevitability of a major quake out west. we have a 120 yr old basement.

i dream of tornadoes all the time. they are huge, but they never hit. (i think it means that i get stressed over things that are, ultimately, nothing.) i grew up in Illinois, but i now live in a place that supposedly is "protected" by the temperature shift of proximity to a great lake. they come to our doorstep, but they never make it beyond the ridge. i really hope that's true.
posted by RedEmma at 11:35 AM on June 5, 2008

The weather sure sucks in the Midwest lately.
posted by sararah at 12:28 PM on June 12, 2008

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