The 2008 tornado that leveled Parkersburg, Iowa left a lot in its wake. A town destroyed. Families torn apart. A community permanently scarred. Despite all the awful things that occurred that day, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the Parkersburg twister has been the blueprint it has provided other towns in the wake of the disaster to deal with similar situations.
Former Parkersburg Police Chief Chris Luhring has spent the better part of the past four years traveling across Iowa and the Midwest, helping towns better understand the things Parkersburg did right - and perhaps more importantly, did wrong - in preparing for and dealing with the tragic events of that day.
Luhring was in Dysart last Wednesday night in front of a crowd of city officials, firemen, police officers and citizens to give a presentation on how to better prepare for a disaster as a community.
Dysart Mayor Pamela Thiele (above right) collaborates with Ambulance Director Steve Weekley during the mock disaster at the Community Building last Thursday night. Below, former Parkersburg Police Chief Chris Luhring gives his presentation and talks with a Dysart Fire Dept. member.
Luhring spent the better part of two hours giving useful information and taking questions on how to set up an incident command center, how to delegate responsibility so the city remains efficient and functional after a disaster and much more.
The presentation focused heavily on what the city of Parkersburg learned from the tornado they went through, where EF-5 winds leveled much of the town and killed several residents. One of Luhring's most important points was educating the city officials on the meaning of a PDS from the National Weather Service. A PDS (potentially dangerous situation) alert is issued with less than two percent of all severe thunderstorm and tornado watches, meaning the likelihood of a major event is extremely high when the weather service deems it necessary to add this extra alert.
Luhring stressed the fact that leaders and officials in more towns need to be familiar with this, as well as the general public.
Luhring also spoke at length about the need for cooperation among neighboring towns, because in a disaster, the town down the road may be your only lifeline.
"It requires cooperating with other towns, and it's sad that it took a tornado to bring us together, but it did," Luhring remarked about the petty squabbles that often keep small towns at odds. "So I would encourage people to put aside their differences, whether it's with Traer or anyone else, because they're just not that important."
The derecho wind storm that affected Dysart in June of 2011 could have been far worse, and the desire to make sure the city was even better in being able to handle the impact of such an event was the main reason for Luhring's visit.
Towards the end of the evening, the spectators were broken up into mixed groups with citizens collaborating with council members, firemen with policemen, men with women, young with old - all to collaborate on a mock disaster situation.
Luhring described a situation in which much of Dysart was destroyed, communications were down, there was possible anhydrous ammonia contamination and much more in the aftermath of a strong tornado moving through town. He tasked the spectators with coming up with a plan to mobilize volunteers, where to set up a command center, who would deal with the media and much more.
The exercise was designed to give residents a better understanding of all that goes into managing a disaster in a small town, the best way to streamline the command structure to work more efficiently and to get people thinking proactively about how to deal with perhaps the most stressful situation of their lives.
Luhring, who lost his aunt in the Parkersburg tornado, also related to the crowd with emotion, as well as humor, in helping them understand that in a disaster, everyone in the town needs to work together.
His story of a Parkersburg resident who had previously been seen as a nuisance due to multiple arrests actually ended up being one of the most helpful when times got tough, getting the equipment to clear the streets of debris and working 20-hour days.
"Sometimes the littlest people," Luhring said. "Can provide the biggest support."