Iowa Tornado Outbreak 2008 and Its Outcomes

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The Iowa tornado outbreak occurred during May 22-31, 2008, and it was considered a set of different tornado outbreaks that affected the central plains of the United States. A total of 239 tornadoes were recorded during this time. We will focus on May 25th, 2008, what local residents said was a relatively calm Sunday on a long Memorial Day weekend.

At approximately 5:00 p.m, a powerful and very destructive EF5 tornado ripped through 3 different counties in Northern Iowa. A massive and destructive tornado approximately three-quarters of a mile wide moved across Butler and Black Hawk counties in northeast Iowa, going through the south end of Parkersburg. The tornado kept its magnitude and concentration as it moved east towards New Hartford, Iowa, causing even more damage to structures and trees. The tornado started to weaken east of New Hartford with less damage as it went through some of the northern areas of Black Hawk County, a little north of the towns of Waterloo and Cedar Falls. During this weakened phase, the supercell that actually produced the tornado formed straight-line winds south of the tornado track causing gusts of up to 100mph. The tornado re-intensified and grew a couple of miles north of Dunkerton, Iowa causing more damage to rural farms, from there it dissipated right before leaving the Black Hawk County line at around 5:50 p.m. It also went on record as one of the largest consecutive tornado outbreaks on record. This tornado would forever be ingrained in Iowans, as it was in a state where 85% of the tornadoes recorded between 1980 and 2008 were at the lower end of the Enhanced Fujita Scale, the last F5 that touched down in Iowa was June 13, 1976. When comparing to the rest of the United States, we see that it was only the third EF5 to touch down in the past 10 years.

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The supercell that produced the Parkersburg tornado developed late in the afternoon of May 25th, 2008. The storm formed south of a surface low that was spotted over northern Minnesota, and beneath a moderate west-south westerly flow aloft. Forecasters originally focused their attention near a triple point in south-central Minnesota, but that attention quickly grew larger south after 8:00 p.m the day prior as the environment became increasingly favorable for tornadoes over north-central Iowa. Surface weather features included a north-south oriented warm front through central Iowa, and a cold front/dryline extending from the triple point into western Iowa and southeast Nebraska. Weather conditions over central Iowa quickly changed from cool and cloudy to humid during the morning, to the warmest, most humid afternoon of the spring season. Parkersburg residents commented that May 25th was the first real humid, summerlike afternoon of the year.

At approximately 3:30 p.m the Storm Prediction Center issues a tornado watch for most of Iowa, including Butler and Blackhawk counties. Heavy rain showers begin in Storm City, a town in central Iowa, this storm would later be known as the storm that produced the devastating EF5 tornado. Local meteorologists who worked in the days leading up to the Parkersburg tornado noticed that the Global Forecast System model (GFS) outperformed the North American Mesoscale model (NAM), and was consistent in advertising some thermodynamic and wind shear values that were concerning, as well as substantial instability that gave way for a potential severe weather event on the afternoon of 25 May 2008. They hypothesized that the brewing supercell was initiated by towering vertical motion in the form of upper-level divergence and surface fronts, combined with a mesoscale environment, it was ideal for the production of a fierce and devastating tornado. To make matters worse, this supercell had substantial precipitation, external forces, such as gravity waves, also added to the tornado. At 4:22 p.m, another tornado warning was issued for northeastern Grundy, northeastern Hardin, Butler, and southeastern Franklin County. The tornado warnings included the towns of Aplington and Parkersburg. The warning was good up till 4:45 p.m. At approximately 4:46 p.m a follow-up tornado warning is issued for the northern Grundy and southeastern Butler counties. This Warning includes the cities of Aplington, Parkersburg, and New Hartford, the warring states that the tornado will be near Parkersburg by 5 p.m.

A cluster of thunderstorms started to rapidly develop around 4 p.m near Fort Dodge, Iowa within the northern edge of the area with the highest instability, indicated by 100 Mb mixed-layer convective available potential energy (CAPE) near 3000 J/kg. This development was not attached to the warm front or cold front but appeared to be associated with a prefrontal trough that was dividing much of the warm sector from a zone of deeper mixing and decreasing surface dew points to its northwest. Visible satellite imagery also indicated a gravity wave that originated in plains of south-central Nebraska earlier in the day. The initial storms developed just after this feature moved through. Storms at the southern end of the cluster rapidly moved to the instability gradient at the northeast boundary of the instability area. The rapid northeast expansion of convection also appears to be related to the gravity wave. The interaction with the north-south oriented warm front began after 4 p.m. The brewing supercell thunderstorm remained tied to the north-south boundary as the tornado reached EF-5 intensity shortly before.

As the tornado pushed across southern Butler County, spotters reported a satellite tornado at 4:07 p.m south of the main tornado, a satellite tornado is a tornado that revolves around a larger, primary tornado and interacts with the same mesocyclone. This smaller rotation was not detected by radar. At around 4:20 p.m, a television viewer reported softball size hail that measured 4.25″ in diameter in Finchford, which is located in the far northwest portion of Black Hawk County. The elevated storm core reached levels of 67 dBZ at 32,000 ft. In addition to the large and destructive tornado, a satellite tornado, and large hail, this storm produced very strong rear flank downdraft winds. At 4:35 p.m, an 81 kt wind gust was recorded by the Automated Surface Observing System (ASOS) at the Waterloo Airport. The tornado continued to track east across northern Black Hawk County and grew to nearly 1.2 miles wide north of Dunkerton, then began to dissipate just before entering Buchanan County.

Due to its high intensity of it being an EF5 tornado and knocking down about 43 miles in its path it took 9 deaths and injured 50. According to, it approximated the total damage being in the millions. While researching more in detail we navigated to find out it was about 75 million in property damage and this was found by a local newspaper named, “”. The County Emergency Management, City Officials, and Fire Department Actions were a huge part of all of this chaos. Each of the three counties had different outlooks on how the messages were being sent to each person. When it came to communication they did their absolute best but some disagreed. For example In Butler county, “No messages were sent on EM 911 Chat. The dispatchers stated that they had no idea about the seriousness of the situation. The dispatchers used NWS warnings for spotter activation, but not siren activation” citation was from Bremer county and Black Hawk County both had successful communication alerts. Lastly Parkersburg,” Parkersburg installed a new siren system four days prior to the storm and it was tested the day before the event. The new siren saved lives since it increased the reach and effectiveness of the siren system in Parkersburg. The new siren system can be activated remotely. However, new protocols were not in place and the system was manually activated for the Parkersburg event”, citation from After the storm passed, Aid came rapidly to those affected. Some testimonials that were said after the storm were, Mike Zwier, KTIV News, “Our viewing area was not directly impacted by those storms… but I did spend some time that night following them. As a bystander, I would say you guys did a great job. It seemed like you guys did plenty of warning updates as new information and locations became available”. Another one was, Joe Milledge, GM KIIC-FM, Albia, IA , ” All too often, you hear of complaints that the wx service missed a forecast or other minor wx event, so when you look back over what happened in Parkersburg, you have to recognize that not only did you guys get it right, you got it EXACTLY right”. The alert system saved lives after reading so many testimonials, It’s highly unfortunate to see that death statistic come from Parkersburg due to the new installment that was made. But also as well as the high number of injuries. After the tornado happened, all-weather systems were summoned to being taken to practices to improve the alert and fast emergency response to its governing communities.

Since the 2008 tornado, the alert system has changed drastically and is still looking for better solutions. At the moment they are still going with a newly installed siren system but they are getting more effective help from Emergency Personnel to not only depend on a siren. For example, the fire department has issued a statement about severe disasters they will alert as many individuals they can as well as police officers. It has gotten stronger year by year with this alert. The siren has now been improved and tested amongst the past tornados since this disaster. While researching it seemed evident to just state how Emergency Personnel is encouraging the community to take the alerts, warnings, trainings and etc more seriously because it can prevent a devasting result. Many civilians in this community are hopeful that they want to help prevent any deaths/injuries and to be more cautious around any storm. Those who have lost their homes or loved ones from the tragic incident still are hopeful about the future.

The legacy of this outbreak was quite interesting to evaluate due to the fact that it was a positive sensitive response in all areas. In the 2010 census, The city of Parkersburg had 1,870 residents living in the town but in 2018 the population was over 2,000. It’s slowly growing its population and growing as a community as well. After the tornado many wanted to flee the county and start a new life, some did but some didn’t. Approximately 1000 were left displaced and had to move but many came back to rebuild. Parkersburg was the city that lost the most amount of lives. 7 people died that day but the town will always remember them and 2 in Hartford. Two days after the destructive tornado happened, the first building permit was issued to reconstruct a new high school that opened the following year. Many community officials and members felt that the high school needed to be rebuilt for its children. Many community members the famous highschool football games that they felt empowered by the whole community and that brought them together.

When the high school was rebuilt, many people just saw the shiny trophies, as well as the home town, feel. People in the towns that were affected by the tornado don’t talk about the tragic day. While reading into its legacy, many people only came together in 2018 for its 10 year anniversary but that’s it. Talking about it, was something that the residents avoided altogether. Not because they hate the memory, they just see a brighter future. They wanted to talk about construction for its town, renovations happening, and not the destruction that once happened. 270 houses were rebuilt but it came with disadvantages of the prices being too high for many residents. A whole group of residents want to build a soccer and baseball complex, with a handicap accessible field. They estimated the price to be around 2. 3 million and to this day the project is nearly complete. There are still many places in the city that debris still arise. A powerful message was sent to Oklahoma after a resident was scheduled to speak about his experience after a tornado hit a city in its state and he stated, “Rebirth is possible. Don’t become disheartened. Attack each problem one at a time. They can recover.” This quote from this man became a sign and a big accomplishment that the city believed is the right way to look at this overcoming event. Not to fear but to recover. The Parkersburg and New Hartford EF5 tornado was one that many will not be able to forget but due to the high involvement and positivity that the individuals arose from it, is what will keep the city moving into a better place. New alert systems have been slowly improving for the town but more precautions and training have been installed.

In conclusion, many people were displaced from the tragic incident with homelessness, deaths or injuries but the town Parkersburg and New Hartford will continue to rise and be the community it once was.

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