Tornado makes direct hit on Iowa City

Al Olson
Public Works Administrator
City of Ankeny, Iowa
Member, APWA Facility & Grounds Committee

On Thursday, April 13, 2006, Iowa City took a direct hit from an F2 tornado packing winds over 150 miles per hour. No tornado had ever made a direct hit on Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa. Historically only 15% of the tornados in Iowa have been an F2 or higher. This storm was the beginning of a rare tornado outbreak sequence that struck across the country throughout the following week.

The first sighting of a funnel cloud occurred around 8:30 p.m. Before the tornado had finished cutting its path through Iowa City, Public Works Director Rick Fosse was calling out crews and working with Fire and Police Departments to put the City's Incident Management Plan into action.

Day 1 following the tornado (Photo: Iowa City Press Citizen)

The tornado tore across the south edge of the university's campus, then ripped through the heart of downtown Iowa City and its historical districts leaving a 3-1/2-mile path of destruction one-third of a mile wide. This was one of a number of tornados reported in Johnson County that evening. The ferocity of the storm caused significant property damage destroying buildings, dropping power lines, causing gas leaks, crushing cars, and forcing many residents from their homes. Johnson County opened their Emergency Operations Center to manage the responses throughout the county while Iowa City established a Command Post to coordinate intensive response activities within the city.

Public Works crews hit the streets running in darkness, some contending with bumper-to-bumper traffic, and sidewalks overflowing with people exploring the damage. Crews were in an emergency response operation for the first three days following the storm. The crews' focus was to move the mixed roadway debris to the shoulders of the roadway and along the right-of-way to open emergency access routes leading to hospitals and devastated areas. This facilitated the vital movement of emergency vehicles, and allowed law enforcement to provide the necessary security.

It was soon evident that the extent of damage was beyond local response capabilities. Governor Tom Vilsack declared a state of emergency for Johnson County that evening. The National Guard, Iowa Department of Transportation, and the Highway Patrol handled crowd control, provided security, and assisted with traffic control at intersections where traffic signals were damaged and not functioning. Police, fire and ambulance crews from neighboring communities were also quick to respond.

As darkness prevailed throughout the city, safety was first and foremost in the minds of the first responders in clearing and moving the debris off the roadway. City crews reacted as if there were bodies underneath each and every pile of wreckage. Downed wires were commingled with the debris, requiring close coordination with Mid American Energy before the debris could be removed. Fortunately, Mid American Energy had deenergized much of the area, because of more than 50 reported gas leaks.

Darkness and conflicting reports made it difficult to determine the limits and severity of the damage. Damage assessment teams were deployed Thursday night to focus rescue efforts and again on Friday to examined the path of the tornado and prepare a comprehensive estimate of public damages and a map of the storm's path. The total damage was assessed at $12 million. FEMA arrived in Iowa City on Saturday and was provided with a detailed damage assessment and map.

Contractors work in tandem in removing debris off city streets.

The focus of the City's efforts shifted from emergency response to debris management and removal on Monday morning. Huge volumes of debris would need to be removed and properly disposed. Quick, convenient removal and conservation of landfill space were established as priorities. The City of Iowa City issued a news release providing residents with debris management information. Two drop sites were established for tree debris. Building and tree debris could also be placed at curbside for removal by the City, but residents were asked to separate building debris from tree debris. It was important to get the information out to the public quickly to separate their waste before placing it at the curb. All fees for these services were waived for a period of two weeks as a service to the citizens, and to expedite the cleanup process for public safety. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources was contacted to obtain approval to place commingled waste in the landfill.

City staff met and a systematic approach to debris management was implemented. Curbside cleanup crews were split into two teams. Solid waste crews started at the perimeter of the storm path while personnel from city streets, forestry, Johnson County and the Iowa Department of Transportation started in the center of the path of the tornado. One important aspect of the debris removal was to keep the 50 crew members hydrated, fed, and with access to portable restroom facilities. Two contractors with grapplers were hired to load tandem axle trucks supplied by the Iowa Department of Transportation, Johnson County, and local city contractors. Skid loaders with clam buckets were also used to pick up debris at curbside. As fast as debris was being hauled away, it was piling back up as people continued to clear their properties. Curbside pickup continued for two weeks.

One of the other problems facing Iowa City was that their landfill didn't operate a construction and demolition (C&D) area. After the initial cleanup of debris, homeowners and businesses started to demolish their damaged buildings producing a second wave of waste arriving at the landfill. With the approval of the DNR, a C&D cell was permitted, constructed, and up and running in a short period of time.

During the first two weeks of cleanup, over $88,000 of fees were waived at the landfill. The drop-off sites remained free all summer and ultimately processed 25,000 cubic yards of tree debris into 7,000 cubic yards of wood chips which were given away free of charge.

  City crews work to clear debris.

Many cities in eastern Iowa offered to help by providing staff and equipment through the Iowa Mutual Aid Compact (IMAC). The Iowa Mutual Aid Compact is an intrastate voluntary program that allows for one political subdivision to assist another political subdivision in a disaster that has been declared either by the local member political subdivision or the governor. Crews from Cedar Falls and Waterloo were used to help with the restoration of traffic signals. The City of Bettendorf provided a vacuum street sweeper to remove all the glass off the streets. Each of the cities that provided mutual aid was reimbursed for their hard costs such as hotel accommodations, food, and fuel expenses. All the cities waived reimbursement for their labor costs. Information on the IMAC can be found at iowahomelandsecurity.org/asp/IMAC.

Iowa City's total cleanup operation took about two months to complete. Cleanup proceeded faster than expected and within a week of the storm all streets were back open. The traffic signal system was fully restored which included replacing 7 signal poles, 53 signal heads, a control cabinet and 75 signs. After 60 days of contemplation, FEMA's Damage Assessment Team concluded that this event was not a federal disaster and no assistance was provided.

Feedback from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, and City staff was commended for their remarkable work in the cleanup operation. Fosse is especially thankful that only one crew member sustained an injury during the entire cleanup process.

Al Olson can be reached at (515) 963-3525 or aolson@ci.ankeny.ia.us.

Sources:

  • Iowa City Public Library website, "Iowa City Tornado Storm, April 13, 2006"
  • Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management - Iowa Mutual Aid Compact
  • USA Today, "Tornadoes rip through eastern Iowa: 1 dead," April 14, 2006