Tornado destroys Iowa high school

A tornado that swept through northeast Iowa on May 25 left seven people dead and destroyed half a town, including a high school.

Aplington-Parkersburg High School, which served roughly 240 students, has been deemed a "total loss."  Dave Meyer, principal of the Parkersburg, Iowa high school, said the building was severely damaged in the storm, is not structurally sound, and may have to be rebuilt.

While many students dream of an early end to the school year, Aplington-Parkersburg students soberly surveyed the damage to their building as they gathered Tuesday in an effort to recover what few items were left untouched.

(Note: Click to see video and photos of the damage, both from the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier.)

The district’s middle school and one of its two elementary schools were not damaged.  Its second elementary school sustained some damage.

Neighboring school districts have offered to help Aplington-Parkersburg with summer courses, and district officials’ next step is to decide where to house next year’s high school students.

The National Weather Service (NWS) said Tuesday that this was the strongest storm to hit the state in 32 years.

With the year not even half done, 2008 is already the deadliest tornado year in the United States since 1998 and seems on track to break the U.S. record for the number of twisters in a year, said the NWS. Also, this year’s storms seem to be unusually powerful.

The weather service ranked Sunday’s twister, three-quarters of a mile wide with winds of up to 205 mph, an EF5–at the top of its scale.

"You just don’t see many of these around," said Steve Teachout, a forecaster with the NWS in Johnston. "There was nothing to hold that storm down. It just blew up."

The nation’s last EF5 tornado flattened Greensburg, Kan., and killed 11 people on May 4, 2007. Iowa’s last tornado of that size hit June 13, 1976, in the town of Jordan. No one was killed–a rarity for storms of that magnitude, Teachout said.

"When you’re talking about that strong a tornado, there’s not a lot of structures that will save people," Teachout said. "Really, the only thing left of a house is the foundation."

An estimated 350 homes in and near Parkersburg were destroyed Sunday, and another 100 suffered major damage, Gov. Chet Culver said. About 50 people were injured.

President Bush and Culver have declared Butler County a disaster area, freeing up federal and state aid for tornado victims.

Sunday’s death toll could have been much worse, said Butler County spokeswoman Holly Fokkena.

A siren was installed about 10 days ago in southeastern Parkersburg–the area worst hit by the tornado, Fokkena said. Sirens from elsewhere in Parkersburg weren’t always audible in that part of town, she said.

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