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Tornado-ravaged Iowa picking up after storms

The Rev. Betsy Piette (center) sits among the ruins of the Parkersburg United Methodist Church parsonage after a F-5 tornado hit the small Iowa
town on May 25. A UMNS photo by Owen Piette.

By Arthur McClanahan*
May 30, 2008 | PARKERSBURG, Iowa (UMNS)

Power is being restored in parts of tornado-ravaged northeast Iowa after an F-5 tornado killed seven people, destroyed much of Parkersburg, damaged homes and buildings in nearby New Hartford, Dunkerton and Hazelton, and scattered debris more than 100 miles away.

United Methodists were at work in the May 25 tornado’s aftermath there as well as in Hugo, Minn., near St. Paul, and after the May 22 tornadoes that struck northern Colorado and southern Wyoming. Training and support from the United Methodist Committee on Relief has assisted church members as they manage the immediate and long-term response to the tornadoes.

Communities in Iowa mourn seven who died as a result of the tornado, care for nearly 70 who were hospitalized, wonder when scores of businesses will reopen, and try to make plans in the aftermath of some 400 homes being damaged and 280 houses destroyed in Parkersburg alone.

The three crosses atop Parkersburg United Methodist Church still stand and are a symbol of hope for the community.
A UMNS photo by Susan Silvoa.

The twister had an estimated wind speed of 200 miles per hour. It hit Parkersburg — a small community of 2,000 residents — the hardest. The high school, city hall, bank, convenience gas station and grocery story were destroyed, as were some 21 businesses. Municipal records dating back to the 1800s are simply gone. The fire station was heavily damaged.

And yet, amidst the rubble that lies in the wake of the mile-wide tornado is the Parkersburg United Methodist Church. According to its pastor, the Rev. Betsy Piette, "the windows in the education wings are all blown in, glass is everywhere, tables and chairs are tossed around…it’s a real mess.” There are holes in the roof of the sanctuary, "but only one stained glass window was destroyed,” she said.

“Water damage is significant,” Piette said, “and yet the three crosses still stand.” Three crosses stand atop a tower on a sanctuary wall of the red brick building. One was bent by the tornado’s winds, but the three still remain.

“Two years ago,” Piette recalled, “the tower wall needed some shoring up. This congregation decided that the crosses are an important witness to the community…and so the people of the church did the work to strengthen the support for the crosses.”

“It’s ironic, now,” she added, “that the first thing people see when they come in to town, when they look past the rubble from the storm is the three crosses, still there, bowed a little, but still reaching up in faith.”

"It was all gone"

Piette’s personal faith is strong, too. When the tornado warning sirens went off “my daughter and I went down into the basement. When it passed we came back upstairs. Two of my kitchen walls were still there, but everything else was gone…walls, furniture, clothes, computer…it’s all gone.”

The pastor's study was damaged by the F-5 twister. A UMNS photo by Stephen Bibb.

Yet, her first instincts were to look after her parishioners and others in the community; she and others are ministering from the central dispatching point for volunteers – the church she serves.

The Rev. Carolyn Bittner, pastor of the nearby New Hartford United Methodist Church, reported that the parsonage and church had sustained some damage – roofing shingles were gone on the church and the gutter system on the parsonage needs repair after a falling tree cast a glancing blow.

United Methodist Bishop Gregory Palmer, Iowa area, invited the Iowa Annual (regional) Conference to keep “the people of the Parkersburg United Methodist Church and the traumatized residents of that small community in your prayers.” In a letter, Palmer added, "Likewise, remember persons in New Hartford and the surrounding area.”

Palmer received a $10,000 emergency grant from UMCOR to support disaster response in Buchanan, Butler and Blackhawk Counties.

By May 29, volunteer crews were being permitted in to help with the tornado cleanup. Those groups were given access by the sheriff's office and directed to the Parkersburg United Methodist Church to be dispatched to work with residents whose homes and property had been seen by insurance adjustors.

This house is one of 280 homes in Parkersburg destroyed by a May 25 tornado. A UMNS photo by Stephen Bibb.

David Lillie, Rocky Mountain Annual Conference disaster response coordinator, has been working with the Rev. Linda Pelletier and others to respond to the tornado damage in Windsor, Colo. Pelletier, pastor of First United Methodist Church, is "plugging into" the disaster response and recovery system through Colorado Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, while at the same time addressing the nearly $100,000 damage to the church and parsonage.

In Minnesota, UMCOR-trained emergency response teams were beginning debris removal in the area around Hugo, where about 50 homes were destroyed and 120 homes damaged.

Contributions for tornado relief work can be made to Domestic Disaster Response, UMCOR Advance No. 901670. Checks can be dropped into church offering plates or mailed directly to UMCOR, P.O. Box 9068, New York, N.Y. 10087-9068. Write the Advance number and name on the memo line of the check. Credit-card donations are accepted online at www.givetomission.org or by phone at (800) 554-8583.

*McClanahan is director of communications for the Iowa Annual Conference. Susan Meister of UMCOR contributed to this report.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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