CHARLES CITY — Cultural moments are like a storm: They re-establish norms and ideas. In Charles City’s case, that storm was the tornado of 1968.
The tornado changed Charles City physically and culturally. Some parts of town are preserved like artifacts of a different age and others were torn down and replaced.
Its roads have changed; some now run diagonal to other streets.
More than 400 people were injured by the May 15, 1968, tornado and 13 were killed; more than 300 homes were destroyed and thousands more were damaged.
In Charles City on Tuesday, residents gathered to remember the devastation 50 years later.
“We lost a lot of old houses and old churches,” said Floyd County Historical Museum Director Mary Ann Townsend. “That sounds awful, but some of those buildings that they took were already empty.”
Residents who were around when it hit remember a pre- and post-tornado town.
“‘Before the tornado we did this, after the tornado we did that.’ That’s a line I’ve heard up here until maybe six months ago,” Townsend said. “That did make our life and change it in so many ways.”
Many residents were forced to find a new church because eight of the city’s churches were destroyed.
Townsend was a young mom when the tornado hit Charles City.
“We lived in an upstairs apartment,” Townsend said. “I was told, ‘Oh don’t worry. Charles City’s in a valley. We will never get hit by a tornado.’ How dumb they are.”
Once the crashing and the blowing started, Townsend got her family down the stairs and to a basement outside.
“We were lucky,” Townsend said. “If someone tells you there’s a tornado coming, I don’t care who it is — a guardian, policeman, parents — when they tell you to go to the basement, do it.”
A lot of people in Charles City remember the tornado and still tell stories. The museum set up an area for residents share their twister tales.
Residents from around Floyd County came together at Central Park near a memorial to the 13 victims of the tornado and to the Floyd County Historical Museum for a presentation and unveiling of a digital exhibit.
The museum has been planning for the anniversary since January, hiring an intern, Adam Nielson, a master’s student from the University of Northern to Iowa, to prepare the new exhibit.
“We’ve been working on it all year,” Townsend said.
The hardest part for Nielson was picking the photos, he said.
“We’ve collected over 800 photos,” Nielson said. “It’s hard to choose; they’re all so emotional and covering.”
Nielson selected 18 photos to go around the exhibit featuring the destruction and magnitude of the tornado.
“One of my favorites is of a gentleman sitting on a peach basket,” Nielson said. “His whole house is just stripped of articles, and yet here he sits with this look of ‘now what?’”
One of the experiences Nielson heard from everyone was how the tornado sounded like a herd of freight trains.
“I can’t really figure what that sound of a deafening roar would sound like,” Nielson said. “This really isn’t a tornado that we see often.”
There have been only four EF-5 level tornados recorded in Iowa, and half happened the day Charles City was hit, when Oelwein was hit as well.
The Rev. Mike Downey, the pastor of the Charles City Evangelical Free Church hosted the event at Central Park.
“We’re working together to give people an opportunity to remember the lives that were lost and to remember the 100 who were injured and the incredible devastation,” Downey said. “We want to the children of the next generation to hear this live from people, they need to know from real people.”
During the event Downey read off the names of the 13 killed in the tornado and invited anyone who knew them to come up and say a few words.
He worked with four other pastoral friends to put on the event, including Joe Low from the Gospel Lighthouse Church in Floyd.
“We want people to not only remember the victims, but the 10 churches that were either destroyed or damaged,” Downey said.
The event was closed by Charles City Mayor Dean Andrews.
“Strangers helped strangers. That’s what we do here in Charles City,” Andrews said.