IMAGE: AERIAL OF FLATTENED TOWN
Steve Pope  /  Getty Images
Most of Parkersburg, Iowa, was wiped out Sunday by a tornado that killed seven.
updated 5/27/2008 3:25:27 PM ET 2008-05-27T19:25:27

A tornado that leveled half a town in northeast Iowa and killed seven people was the strongest to hit the state in 32 years, the National Weather Service said Tuesday.

Sunday’s twister, three-quarters of a mile wide with winds of up to 205 mph, tore a path through Parkersburg and nearby towns. The weather service ranked it an EF5 — at the top of its scale.

“You just don’t see many of these around,” said Steve Teachout, a forecaster with the National Weather Service 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 injured — 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.

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.

Surveying the damage
Meanwhile, Fred Everts held back tears as he surveyed the pile of splintered wood and metal scraps that had been his and his wife’s home.

Nearby, a makeshift sign amid the rubble reminded Everts and others that they were in Russell Circle, once their street.

“We have no place yet,” the 85-year-old said. “We were trying to get it cleaned up and save the stuff that’s precious to us.”

Everts was among hundreds of people who lost homes and belongings when a tornado ripped apart a stretch of northern Iowa.

Iowa’s death toll from Sunday’s storm rose to seven with the death of a person who was hospitalized, Gov. Chet Culver announced Tuesday in Des Moines. In neighboring Minnesota, a child was killed by violent weather Sunday in a suburb of St. Paul.

Culver announced federal and state disaster declarations for the region, and said he would continue a curfew in Parkersburg for safety reasons and to allow residents to survey their losses.

“We want to give families time to sort through their belongings privately so they can figure out what they can keep and what needs to be destroyed,” said Culver. “That’s going to take some time and we want to be respectful of the families here involved in that difficult process.”

Video: Town's tragedy

Altogether, 350 homes were destroyed by the twister, the governor said. The damage in Parkersburg alone was staggering: 288 homes destroyed in a town of some 1,000 residents, 21 businesses destroyed and more than 300 homes damaged. Among the buildings destroyed were the city hall, the high school and the town’s sole grocery store and gas station.

Warning sirens sounded early enough to give residents time to seek shelter, Parkersburg Mayor Bob Haylock said.

“Without that, we would have a tremendous amount of injuries and loss of life,” Haylock said. “People were down in their basements and waiting it out.”

However, Haylock said most of those killed in Parkersburg were in basements. All were adults, he said.

Diane Goodrich rode out the storm in her basement with her husband and three neighbors.

“The noise was just unbelievable,” Goodrich said Monday as she searched through the ruins of her home. “Our ears were popping. We could hear trees flying over us. We could hear every piece of furniture that left the house.”

Sunday’s storm followed an east-to-west path just a few miles north of the Waterloo area. It hit Parkersburg, New Hartford and then Dunkerton, about 50 miles east of Parkersburg.

Video: State of emergency North of St. Paul, Minn., the tornado that struck the town of Hugo on Sunday killed 2-year-old Nathaniel Prindle and injured his young sister, Washington County officials said. The boy’s father was hospitalized in stable condition, while his 4-year-old sister was in critical condition, and his mother was released after treatment, authorities said.

The Red Cross said 27 homes were destroyed and 16 had major damage.

Storms also killed at least two people Friday in Kansas.

About 100 people have been killed by U.S. twisters so far this year, the worst toll in a decade, according to the National Weather Service, and the danger has not passed yet. Tornado season typically peaks in the spring and early summer, then again in the late fall.

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