News & Events

"We Were the Lucky Ones"

By Michael Judge

I was raised on tornado stories. California has its earthquakes, the Gulf states their hurricanes. Here in the Midwest, we have tornadoes, so many we even name our football teams after them. Cyclones, twisters, funnel clouds, they’ve been tearing up our farms and family homes for generations.

On May 15, 1968, an F5 tornado—with winds between 261 and 318 mph—ripped through Charles City, Iowa, killing 15 and injuring more than 400. The family home of my father’s grandfather, Frank Nockels, was leveled, as were scores of others. A picturesque Midwestern downtown, with family stores and charming storefronts, simply vanished. Luckily, the family business, a tavern and billiard-room my German-Catholic Great Grandma called the “recreation hall,” was spared. “God must like beer,” became the running joke in town, since all eight churches sustained heavy damage, but the bars were, mercifully, passed over.

The same storm also devastated my mother’s family home just 25 miles away in Elma, Iowa, a town of some 600 souls named after my Great Grandma Elma Potter. The stately home, with its winding drive and formal entryway, was knocked off its foundation; the oaks and elms that provided shade from the summer sun twisted into impossible heaps. A few days later, my grandpa, Dinsmore Brandmill, a gentleman farmer and Elma’s son, found his tractor in the next county, strangely unscathed by the tempest.

All of these stories, as I recall them, began and ended, “We were the lucky ones.” Now I have my own story of luck and wonder to go along with them. On Thursday, a tornado like the finger of God tore through our historic neighborhood here in Iowa City, downing trees and power lines, overturning cars and trucks, and tearing the roofs from 100-year-old houses. Some 6,000 homes lost power as the twister rended this beautiful Midwestern college town, home to the University of Iowa (our sporting teams are called the Hawkeyes, from The Last of the Mohicans, while Iowa State in Ames is home, ironically, to the Cyclones).

Our two-story Victorian, built in 1883 and listed on the national historic register, was smack in the tornado’s path. When it hit, the windows in the dining room blew in, taking a section of wall with them. The roar was tremendous. A family heirloom—a dining-table with three leaves, large enough to seat 12—was snapped in half and thrown against the north wall. Trees around the house were either shattered or torn from the ground, root balls the size of small cars were wrenched from the soil that had held them for generations. A giant pine, 100 feet high and thick as an oil barrel, clipped our front porch as it toppled, miraculously missing the main structure and leaving our home, for the most part, intact.

It’s true what they say: When a tornado is approaching it does resemble the sound of a freight train bearing down on you, as if you’re stuck on the tracks, and all you can do is watch the light of the locomotive grow brighter. Anthony Pei (a local musician and friend) and I barely made it to the basement before the dining room wall exploded, sending window glass and debris flying. The bottle of port we were working on didn’t survive the blast.

It’s still too early to know exactly how much damage was done to our home, and to the hundreds of other homes, farms and businesses that were hit by this particular storm. St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was cut in half. The Dairy Queen on Riverside Drive is all but gone. “Good Morning America” sent a film crew to the ruins that were just yesterday the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house—a long line of homeless coeds is a good story, no matter what the cause. Thursday night, the emergency rooms swelled with storm victims and college kids directed traffic at busy intersections. By the next morning, the National Guard had taken over traffic duty, but young university students were still going door to door, volunteering help. Even with half the windows blown out and a gaping hole in the side of our home, my wife and I had no fear of looting.

As friends, family and church members gathered to help clear debris, it was difficult to comprehend the extent of the devastation. What’s clear, however, is that we will rebuild. And one day, not too far off, I will tell my grandchildren of the Great Tornado of 2006. How we got through it. How we were the lucky ones.

Mr. Judge, a writer and Hoover Institution media fellow, is currently working on a memoir.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal © 2006 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.

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