OELWEIN, Iowa – Iowa has set a record for the longest span of time without a tornado in the state. The previous record was 355 days without a tornado. The last tornado touched down in Fayette County on May 24, 2012.
Coincidentally, this record is set on the same day as some of the worst severe weather events in state history. Fifteen years ago, on May 15, 1998, an F3 tornado tore through Washington County.
On May 15, 1968, a tornado outbreak hit the Midwest. Two F-5 tornadoes touched down, devastating communities like Charles City and Oelwein. In 1968, 20 people died in the series of storms and more than 600 were injured.
Oelwein Fire Chief Wallace Rundle was a 28-year-old firefighter when it happened. Now, he's in his seventies, but still remembers every minute of that day 45 years ago. "I was on duty, had a 24 hour shift and a little before 5 p.m., noticed there were clouds building up," Chief Rundle said.
Chief Rundle remembers the wind. He remembers the hail, and he remembers people running. "I remember that day like it was yesterday. I can get kind of emotional even today," said Chief Rundle.
Perhaps the thing he remembers the most was that siren. "I remember at the moment we saw the tornado," Chief Rundle said. "I ran to the station button, we had one big siren in town; you push the button and hold it in case of severe weather. It only went off for about fifteen seconds until we lost power."
The chief said he wanted the entire town to hear that siren, but it went silent after just those few short seconds. Then, after the storm, he couldn't believe what he saw. "You saw something that you just hadn't expected to see that much devastation," Chief Rundle said.
The wind drove tree limbs through walls, leveled dozens of homes and took the life of one Oelwein woman.
"We couldn't leave the downtown area because there were trees and debris and we couldn't take our fire equipment out of the downtown," Chief Rundle said.
The town has recovered since then and that gives the chief a sense of pride. Still, he'll always remember the impact that stormy May 15 day had on just about everyone.
"I think we all grew to love the community more," Chief Rundle said. In light of the devastation, the chief says he's thankful there was no more loss of life.
In 1991, Meteorologist Joe Winters visited Oelwein and talked to residents about their memories of the tornado. Watch that report:
That same afternoon, another F5 tornado tore through Charles City & Elma. That tornado killed 13 people and injured 450 others.
The tornado destroyed neighborhoods and a large area of downtown Charles City, more than $30 million in damage was recorded.
The tornado destroyed more than 35 farms on it's 60+ mile path. The city of Elma was also struck by the tornado.
In 1995, KCRG-TV9 featured Charles City as one of the "Our Town" communities. Residents recalled their memories from the storm. Watch that report:
May 15, 1998 is day many residents of Washington, Iowa, won't forget. At about 5 p.m., a tornado struck the southern portion of the community. The tornado was rated an F-3 on the Fujita Scale with winds in excess of 158 m.p.h. and traveled for nearly 30 miles. 47 people were injured in the storm. Damages totaled $15 million. No one was killed.
In 2008, we spoke to Chad & Joan Hippen, about their memories of what's now known as the Washington Tornado.
"I remember asking a lady, 'Did it just take the roof off?' And she said 'No, it took everything.' The roof was literally in the front yard," said Joan Hippen.
"I sat there and looked. And I was in a state of shock and then after that the tears started to flow," said Chad Hippen.
When the storm came, Joan was 6 months pregnant with their first child. It's a story she still tells to her two daughters.
The two teachers weren't ready for the aftermath, but they handled it. Now, they have a lesson for everyone. "Make sure you take storms seriously and don't go out and watch them. Make sure you take cover," said Joan.
But first, make sure you know what you have at home. Inventory everything, and keep that list in a good place. "It's so cliche, but you don't think it's going to happen to you until it does. Now I tell people don't say that. Because it can happen to you," said Chad.
The tornado stayed on the ground and lifted near I-80 at West Branch.