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Tornado-ravaged Iowa town copes with major losses

PARKERSBURG, Iowa (BP)–Residents of the small town of Parkersburg, Iowa, have assembled a makeshift memorial in front of the home of a couple who died in the tornado that devastated the area May 25. Two kitchen chairs, a flag and a pot of flowers now serve as a reminder of the lives that were lost.

Richard Nations, editor of the Iowa Baptist newspaper, was onsite in Parkersburg as he relayed information to Baptist Press. He spoke with Ed Thomas, the athletics director at Aplington-Parkersburg High School, which was destroyed by the EF5 tornado.

Thomas said the devastation is unbelievable but was grateful that students were not in the school when the storm hit. Thomas and his wife lived across the road from the school and were huddled in their basement when their home was blown away.

“This is where your faith really enters in,” Thomas told Nations. “It brings our churches and community together.”

The school’s football team mobilized as a debris removal unit for the town, Thomas said, and on Wednesday afternoon they even dug a grave for one of four local residents who died. The tornado also claimed two others in Iowa.

Southern Baptist chaplains were being deployed to walk the streets in Parkersburg and assist those who are grieving after officials counted 222 homes and 21 businesses destroyed and more than 400 homes damaged. In addition to the high school, the town’s sole grocery store and gas station were destroyed.

A disaster relief feeding unit from the Baptist State Convention of Iowa was set up in the city park in nearby Aplington, preparing nearly 4,000 meals a day to be distributed by Red Cross emergency response vehicles. Additional state units were being sent to Parkersburg Thursday afternoon, Nations reported.

The meals prepared by Iowa Baptists also were being served at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Parkersburg. Businesses, churches and local residents had donated food to the VFW for relief efforts, but Nations said officials were turning more to meals prepared by Baptists out of a concern for food safety and temperature control.

“We are trying to use as much of the food from the Baptists as possible,” Rick Ruble, disaster relief food coordinator for the Red Cross, told Nations. “We know the quality and safety is consistent. We were glad to see SBC disaster relief roll up. We think the world of them.”

Ruble said Parkersburg “looks like a landfill in some places” after the tornado destroyed about a third to half of the town of 1,900 people in northeast Iowa.

Dan Doolin, pastor of Solid Rock Baptist Church in Wapello and food coordinator for the unit from the Baptist Convention of Iowa, said the crew is trying hard to keep up with the demand.

“The biggest challenge is to work with large- and small-scale operations of food needs,” Doolin said. “Some meals are large like 2,000 meals at a time. Others are small, like 50 or 60. It’s hard to keep the inventory of food up to gauge the need and response.”

A second team of food unit volunteers was expected to arrive May 31 and remain activated through June 4.

Nations said he stopped at a shelter at Aplington Middle School and spoke with Pat Jans, a Red Cross volunteer from Dysart, Iowa. She said on Wednesday that they had served about 1,500 meals in the previous 24 hours and had 22 people sleeping at the school overnight.

“That shelter is being overseen by Dee Goodspeed from Coloma, Calif.,” Nations said. “She and her husband were in Grinnell, Iowa, for a wedding and they heard about the disaster Sunday and came on up here because they are certified Red Cross shelter managers. They were pressed into service immediately.”

Residents and businesses in several area towns had donated toiletries and clothing to the Red Cross for distribution to tornado victims.

Nations attended a meeting of disaster recovery officials and local church leaders on Wednesday and reported that said Homeland Security officials expected to finish their assessments of damage by Friday. They would then help the community move into recovery mode with federal assistance.

“You really are overwhelmed when you see it,” Iowa Gov. Chet Culver said at a news conference Monday after touring the Parkersburg area. “You can’t imagine this kind of devastation, homes completely gone. And to see people trying to sort through their belongings is very difficult.”

The tornado was the strongest to hit Iowa in 32 years. The last EF5 tornado in the United States demolished Greensburg, Kan., on May 4, 2007, killing 11 people, the Associated Press noted. About 100 people have been killed by tornadoes in the United States this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the National Weather Service.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.

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