Spring's storms stir memories of tornadoes - Omaha.com
Published Tuesday, May 28, 2013 at 12:30 am / Updated at 7:22 am
Spring's storms stir memories of tornadoes

Tom Lesan, a vice president of Southwestern Community College, remembers arriving at the Creston, Iowa, campus the night of April 14, 2012, an hour after a tornado struck.

Two houses near the college had been ripped from their foundations and hurled onto campus. The roofs of two residence halls were gone. The lawns and streets were littered with debris.

“It's just like they say, it looks like a bomb went off,” Lesan said last week.

The tornado that struck the college and Creston that Saturday night was classified as an EF2, packing winds of 130 mph. A handful of people were injured, and no one was killed. The tornado that hit Moore, Okla., on May 20 was an EF5, with wind speeds of more than 200 mph. It killed 24 people.

While recent tornadoes in Nebraska and western Iowa have not been as deadly as last week's Oklahoma twister, those who have survived or dealt with their aftermath say the experience has heightened their awareness of the threat posed by severe weather.

It also makes those survivors sympathetic to those who now must get their bearings in a severely damaged city and start anew.

“We are just fortunate that we didn't have to face that,” said Mike Taylor, Creston's city administrator. “Our heart goes out to those folks. It's devastating. It's going to be a long time until any of those people can have a place they can call their own.”

Most of the damage has been fixed in Creston, but the occasional hammer is still swinging on tornado repairs.

Lesan said those on campus still find the occasional tornado-related problems, such as leaks in windows and cracks in walls.

But the dorms have new roofs. The houses have been rebuilt. And the storm that caused $4 million in damage to the campus has added an urgency to tornado drills, with sophomores underscoring their importance.

“They are a great messenger to those freshmen who weren't there a year ago,” Lesan said.

Lesan said the college hasn't fundamentally changed anything about how it responds to tornadoes — that's because almost everything happened as planned during the 2012 twister, with the students sheltering in dormitory hallways, which were reinforced as safe rooms.

But the same isn't true for the Mid-America Council of the Boy Scouts of America. A tornado struck the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in Iowa on June 11, 2008, killing four Boy Scouts. Since then, two tornado shelters have been built at the camp, said John Rickert, the chairman of the Properties and Maintenance Committee for the Mid-America Council. On the night of the tornado, the Scouts had to seek shelter in regular buildings.

The new structures have concrete walls, steel shutters and doors and emergency power backup. The shelters were built to withstand an EF5 tornado. The 2008 tornado was an EF3.

“Hopefully, we'll never have to have them do their thing, but we're ready,” Rickert said.

A storm shelter was added at the Scouts' Camp Cedars near Cedar Bluffs, Neb., last summer, but there are still other area Scout camps in need, including Camp Wakonda in Bellevue.

The council wants to raise $3 million by the end of the year to add four more shelters to Camp Cedars and nearby Camp Eagle, said council spokeswoman Katie Godbout.

Rickert said reports from Oklahoma are a reminder of how important it is to be ready.

“It always brings back the horrible memories of the four Scouts that were killed,” he said. “It just reinforces: Whatever we can do, we need to do.”

In Nebraska, the Lancaster County village of Hallam was hit by a twister on May 22, 2004, destroying nearly every building in town. Today, much of the town of 276 has been rebuilt.

Gary Vocasek, 52, a Hallam resident, said the community held together better than he could ever have imagined. The bank, farmers co-op and an automotive garage were all rebuilt, as were the village's two churches, which he called the community's heart and soul.

Improvements during the reconstruction included a backup battery system for the town's emergency sirens and the inclusion of basements or safe rooms in the rebuilt homes.

“A lot of the homes had been built long ago, before there were a lot of permits and inspections in that small-town kind of way,” he said. “Now, I think maybe every home has a basements and or a safe room.”

Vocasek said if he has any advice for the people of Moore, Okla., it would be this: “Things will get better.” He said the first few days after Hallam's disaster, residents walked around in kind of a daze.

“We lost a lot of people, but we are getting a lot of new residents now and a lot of young kids,” he said. “Hopefully, they will stick around and Hallam will be better than ever.”

Contact the writer: 402-444-1310, andrew.nelson@owh.com

Contact the writer: Andrew J. Nelson

andrew.nelson@owh.com    |   402-444-1310    |  

Andrew writes about virtually everything – crime, features, legislative news and small-town controversy – happening in Iowa.

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