Aftermath of the Tornado
3 am, Tuesday, May 25, 2004
by Helen D. Gunderson
RHS Alumni Web Site Editor

Photo: Clinton-Garfield Cemetery this morning. The trees were damaged by Friday's tornado, tagged with yellow police plastic and later cut down by inmates from the prison at Rockwell City who brought chainsaws with them. Click on any photo for a larger view.

From 11 am Saturday until mid-afternoon today, I was in the Rolfe area and photographed and videotaped damage left by the tornado and the clean-up efforts.

For several years, I have been documenting my rural heritage and gathering images of life around Rolfe. I have been there when the house at our family homeplace halfway between Rolfe and Pocahontas was razed in 1990. I was there when Rolfe High School had its last graduation that same year. I was there when the Rolfe Presbyterian Church was demolished in 1996.

So, in many ways, coming back to my home turf and gathering images of the devastation left by the storm and the clean-up efforts was invigorating. It's part of what I enjoy doing even though it is not easy to deal with the changes in the landscape.

The activity also wore me out. Perhaps that's because I had stayed up late on Friday writing the first report about the tornado and had gotten up earlier than usual on Saturday to get to Rolfe. Perhaps being out in the sun for several hours on Saturday at places that had been hit by the tornado tired me out. Perhaps scrambling around for good angles, including crawling atop my car, to take photographs is what did me in. Yes, I am the woman with the white Honda Civic with the concave roof caused by the many times I have stood on it. Perhaps, I was more emotionally impacted by what I saw than I had thought.

Whatever the reason for being so dead tired, I hate to admit that I napped much of Sunday while many people were throwing themselves into the clean-up effort at locations near Rolfe and in Bradgate. It's hard to imagine how they fared. I am sure many of them have full-time family and work responsibilities and still made the commitment of long hours and strenuous work to help other people begin to put their places and lives back together.

I brought back lots of photos and video footage. I also have scribbled notes from some of the people whose homes and farms were damaged and from some of the volunteer coordinators at the Rolfe fire department. I am eager to shape this material and post it. However, it is after midnight, and I am again weary.

The Span of Damage
There is much to report. There was damage to the farm homes and out buildings of more than a dozen families from the place where my father, Deane Gunderson (RHS 1935), lives three miles southwest of Rolfe to the farm of Kelvin Stearns four miles east of town. He lives just south of C26, the main east-west highway, near the Des Moines River. The town of Bradgate is on the east side of the river and is the town that made the big headlines with some 80-90 percent of its 40 or so homes totally destroyed.

There is the damage to the cemeteries. Today, I spent most of my time in the old section of the Clinton-Garfield Cemetery. It is hard to fathom the transformation that has occurred there. The place that was once known for its stately trees is now akin to other cemeteries that have only green grass and tombstones with a few scrawny trees left standing. In some respects, I should have simply sat and cried. However, the volunteers, including some 30 inmates in orange clothing from the Rockwell City prison, were making fast work of the clean-up job that they began yesterday. The cemetery was abuzz with the activity of giant backhoes, red gravel trucks from the county, John Deere tractors with loaders, skid-loaders, rakes, chainsaws, and plenty of physical labor.

Another Storm Today
It was mid-afternoon when young Bill Kemna (RHS 1986) of the fire department warned me that a bad storm was coming our way and that I needed to head for cover. The orange-clad inmates loaded up in their school bus and took off, and eventually the other workers left as well. I stopped to visit a couple of farms that I had been at on Saturday then I went to town, checked email at the Rolfe Public Library where I had notes from some of the RHS web site visitors. Then I went to the bank and talked to Bill Winkleblack about what to tell Rolfe loyalists who live away from the area how they could help. And while there, we looked at the weather radar on one of the computers.

I holed up at the Pronto Station and had a submarine sandwich and some herbal tea (I always carry bags of my favorite brew with me.) There was thunder, lightening, and a long downpour. It was hard to tell if another tornado would swoop down on the area. I wanted to get back to Gilbert for a 7 pm city council meeting. So when the turbulent weather abated, I headed toward the Pro Coop where manager Kenny Bennett (RHS 1964) helped me check the weather for Gilbert on his computer. It seemed unwise to head south with a band of bad stuff moving from southwest Iowa up into central Iowa. So I stalled. I stopped to see my mother at the Rolfe Care center then went back to my Dad's farm. He and my sister, Clara Gunderson Hoover (RHS 1960), were not there, probably still running errands.

I flipped a mental coin between going and not going. The weather was clearing. I decided to hit the road. As I approached the six-mile corner south of Rolfe and listened to the radio, I heard flash flood warnings for Humboldt County. I knew I would not turn east and go through Humboldt. I felt sorry for the Bradgate people and their cleanup after the tornado. The heavy rains of yesterday and today would only complicate their process.

There was a tornado warning for Madison County southwest of Des Moines. I kept on my way. Although there was strong rain at times, the 100-mile trip was rather uneventful. And when I got out of the city council meeting at Gilbert, there was a huge, double rainbow in the sky.

Getting to the Point
You're probably thinking, "Hey, Helen, quit roaming around the back 40 with all that irrelevant stuff and tell us about the tornado." Well, my point is that I am eager to post photos and write up details and anecdotes, but I am bone weary and should be in bed.

However, in summary for tonight, I'm impressed that the Rolfe area was so heavily impacted by a tornado and that my hometown was on the news from coast to coast. I'm impressed that the storm started at my parents' farm even though the damage there was moderate. I'm impressed with the many volunteers who helped with the cleanup or prepared food. I'm told that various women of the community formed an assembly line at the fire station on Saturday and made 1,000 sandwiches. They also made enough Maid-Rite mix to fill four roasters. Some of the food was sent to workers in Bradgate, some was kept in Rolfe to feed volunteers at the fire station.

I'm impressed with how the rescue and cleanup efforts were coordinated and the leadership provided by the Rolfe fire department, ambulance crew, police, and all their cronies. They essentially seemed to  have good common sense and a history of working together to help out in difficult times. Indeed, they are unsung heroes. You would have been proud to see how well Rolfe handled itself, helping people in the Rolfe area but also extending help to the people in Bradgate.

Fathoming the Damage
I have to admit that it is hard to fathom some of the damage. Sure, I know what the red, wooden shed looked like at my Dad's place before it collapsed in the storm. And I know what the Reigelsberger seed warehouse, a quarter mile east,  looked like before it exploded from the imbalance of air pressure created by the tornado.

Gunderson shed May 8, 2004

Gunderson shed May 22, 2004

I don't know what Mike and Joni Zeman Behrendsen's (RHS 1961 and 1970) farm east of Rolfe looked like before it got sacked. A window in the house was broken with glass scattered across the family room. Although the house and garage are still standing, all of the out buildings were destroyed. A third of one silo and two-thirds of another silo are still standing, but with loose concrete, and the loading chute is still in place. They also had many oak trees in their farm yard, and many of them are now gone or looking very ragged.

The Joni and Mike Behrendsen farm.

But I was not familiar with their place as it looked pre-tornado and can't fully understand the contrast between what was there before the storm and what is there now. Nor can I appreciate what it was like for them to duck into their machine shed 10 seconds before the storm hit, have the building collapse on them, be taken to the hospital in Poky, and be fully engaged the next day in the cleanup effort. Joni sustained a broken nose and cuts to her head and arms. Mike had a concussion and recalls little of what happened when the storm hit.

Clinton-Garfield Cemetery circa 2000.

I do know what the old part of the Clinton-Garfield Cemetery looked like. It's where my great grandparents are buried, where the Memorial Day services are held, and where I have photographed the majestic trees. It is the impression from being there today that leaves me the most pensive. I am sad and perplexed. It's hard to put my finger on what I feel. And I know that what I feel is not totally rational.

Although I have some cynicism about all the money put into caskets and tombstones, that cemetery is a unifying place for people revisiting their heritage, for instance when they put out flowers on Memorial Day, and it has been a great place to walk and reflect on life's issues.

The tornado knocked over some monuments, including the one for my great grandparents. The tornado also made a briar patch out of the stately trees. The only pleasant aspect of the situation was the vibrant smell of cedar throughout the area. After hours of volunteer labor, the mess has pretty much been cleared, and a person gets the eerie sense, "The trees were here, and now they're not." The scene is a vivid reminder of the mystery of life and death.

Clinton-Garfield Cemetery on May 17, 2004.

The Work Takes Time
There are photos to edit, notes to write up, web pages to format and post. However, although the tornado lasted a matter of seconds or minutes, the aftermath of the storm will be much longer. It's not easy to report comprehensively about what happened in an instant or even in a few days. I will need to pace myself.

It's hard to imagine how the victims of the tornado will pace themselves. It takes plenty of time to recover from that kind of devastation even with a good insurance policy. My compassion goes out to those people impacted by the storm.

I wasn't on the scene with chain saw, rake, or loader tractor. I didn't prepare food or take bottled water to homes where the electricity wasn't working and they had no running water. But I will do what I can to document and share some of the images and stories. For sure, I could not visit all the sites of damage nor know the heart of what people experienced. Hopefully, other people will send pictures that can be used on this site to supplement mine. Perhaps some people will write about their experiences and send their thoughts for us to post.

Hopefully, in the next few weeks, I will be able to interview various people impacted by the storm or who were part of the rescue or cleanup missions. It would be great to present some of their stories and perspectives in their own voices.

Well, before the clock strikes 2 am, I best end this report and shut off the computer. Tomorrow is a new day for us all no matter what our role was in relation to the tornado.

How to Help
Between talking to civic leaders such as LaDonna Marine and Shelly Stumpf at the Rolfe fire department on the evening after the tornado and Bill Winkleblack today, I get the impression that the best way many of you readers can help is to send money. There is a huge food bill that was rung up by volunteer food preparers who got their supplies at Bill's Foodland Grocery in Rolfe. It will need to be paid. The cemetery associations and golf club will need funds for restoration. The ministerial association, which consists of all the churches in town, has a history of distributing funds to people in need and could use support. The fire department and ambulance crew can also use funds.

So here is what sounds like the best advice for now. If we get new advice, we will post it.

Write a check to the Rolfe State Bank. Mail it to the bank in care of Bill Winkleblack. If you don't know Bill, he has a long history of service to the Rolfe community, has been a leader of both the Rolfe Betterment Incorporated and the Rolfe Enrichment Committee, and is a vice president of the bank.

You can designate how you want you donation to be used. For instance, you could indicate to use the funds where they are most needed. Or you can designate them to go to a specific organization or purpose. For instance, you could designate the ministerial association as the recipient or indicate that you want the money to help victims rebuild their homes.

Bill will convert your gift into a bank draft and give it to your designated recipient. He will also arrange for you to get a letter of acknowledgement. If you wish, you could call or email Bill prior to sending your check. He would be happy to answer questions, respond to suggestions, and generally facilitate the process of channeling funds to help in the aftermath of the tornado. If you wish, you could also contact city hall. Although the city hall staff does not channel funds, they would know how to help you make connections in your pursuit of helping the cause.

Thank you for whatever way you find to help those people affected by the recent tornado and other natural disasters.

Bill Winkleblack, Vice President
Rolfe State Bank
Telephone: 712-848-3480
Address: 316 Garfield; Rolfe, Iowa, 50581
E-mail address:

Tom Smith, City Administrator/Clerk
Janice Young, Deputy City Clerk
City of Rolfe
Telephone: 712-848-3124
FAX (712)848-3128
Address: 319 Garfield; Rolfe, Iowa, 50581
E-mail address:

Rolfe High School Alumni Web Site: Graphic by Wendy Bennett

Rolfe High School Alumni Web Site
1999 Rolfe Alumni Group
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