Crisis reveals character, and the Lake City community showed its true colors after an EF-1 tornado ripped through the town and tore the roof off the high school around 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 10.
"It’s a Mother’s Day we won’t forget," said Alan Wedemeyer of rural Lake City. Just minutes before the tornado hit, Wedemeyer and his wife, Annette, were attending a senior awards night program at the high school auditorium, where their daughter, Rachel, received a Calhoun County Farm Bureau scholarship. The Wedemeyer family, along with more than 100 people at the ceremony, took cover in the auditorium basement as the tornado burst into town.
The tornado’s 100-mile-per-hour winds blasted the high school campus and struck homes in the northwest part of town. The whole ordeal was over in about 15 seconds. As people cautiously stepped outside to survey the damage and check on their neighbors, everyone was relieved to have escaped Mother Nature’s wrath without a single serious injury, let alone a fatality.
"At the time, I didn’t realize how serious the situation was," said Shari Seil, whose family farms in the area. "Being ushered to the basement of the school just seemed like a precaution. Seeing the videos and pictures really made me realize how lucky we all are. It could have been so much worse."
Volunteers pitch in
By early Monday morning May 11, hundreds of volunteers from a 30-mile radius around Lake City and the American Red Cross were pouring into Lake City.
After checking in with organizers, volunteers of all ages fanned out across the high school campus and in hard-hit neighborhoods to clean up debris, which ranged from large sheets of metal stuck in tree tops to endless chunks of pink attic insulation strewn across lawns, streets and trees.
"It was horrible, but it could have been so much worse," said Travis Gemberling of Lohrville, who graduated from the local school district and operates Gemberling Excavating with his family.
Gemberling and his crew brought an excavator and side-dump truck to Lake City and spent all day cleaning up debris around the high school. "It’s about pride in the school system," he said. "We’re thankful for all the help."
This help included local farmers, such as South Central Calhoun School Board President Jim Brown, and members of the South Central Calhoun FFA.
"The kids have been great and have helped with everything from cleaning up debris around the high school to moving supplies out of the school kitchen so the food wouldn’t spoil," said Matt Carlson, FFA advisor.
By early afternoon, so many people had come to town to help that the Lake City Fire Department posted a hand-written note on the front door of the fire station noting that no more volunteers were needed.
After declaring a State of Disaster Emergency in Calhoun County May 11, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad visited Lake City that afternoon to survey the damage and offer support. "The way Lake City and Calhoun County have pulled together in the wake of the tornado is a testament to rural Iowa," he told reporters during an impromptu press conference outside the high school.
Minor farm damage
While rural areas were largely spared from destruction, a few farms northeast of Lake City did suffer damage. The tornado destroyed a machine shed and blew debris across one farmstead. The twister also uprooted a large tree, mangled part of the grain-handling system, blew over a small bin and upended a camper at Marj Burley’s farm northeast of Lake City, reported Nick Burley, Marj Burley’s grandson who farms in the area and serves on the Calhoun County Farm Bureau board.
A violent hailstorm that followed the tornado also damaged newly-emerged corn in some fields. The deluge of rain (up to 1.6 inches) that accompanied the storm created ponds in some fields northwest of town, leaving some farmers wondering whether they will have to replant some of those acres.
That wasn’t the top priority on most farmers’ minds, however. Members of the Calhoun County Farm Bureau Board and Calhoun County Corn Growers Board, including Kevin Poen of Lake City, were assisting with cleanup efforts and coordinated with area beef and pork producers to grill burgers for the volunteers, teachers and students who needed the comfort of a hot meal. "We care about our community," Poen said. "We will do whatever we can to help."
Maulsby is the Calhoun County Farm Bureau president and a freelance writer in Lake City.