|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.
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 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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
The Work Takes Time
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
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.