By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008
Iowa struggled with large-scale flooding for the sixth day yesterday, even as state officials and residents mourned the death of four Boy Scouts killed by a tornado Wednesday night at a scout camp in western Iowa.
The state has been ravaged by one weather disaster after another since a May 25 tornado that killed seven and injured 50 in northeastern Parkersburg. Wednesday's twister, which also injured several dozen, brings to 14 the number of dead in Iowa tornadoes in the past three weeks.
Eighty-nine scouts survived the tragedy, some cowering in shelters as debris and bricks flew around them; others, who were on a hike, were out in the open. Survivors told of using their scout training to provide emergency first aid to those who were injured.
The tornado destroyed the 1,800-acre camp's four cabins and ripped up tents. Many parents gathering in a community center and local hospitals could not locate their sons until six hours after the disaster.
One of the dead, Aaron Eilerts, 14, of Eagle Grove, Iowa, was an only child who liked playing flute and sewing and hoped to become an Eagle Scout. Three boys from Omaha also were killed: 13-year-olds Josh Fennen and Sam Thomsen; and Ben Petrzilka, 14.
The tornado that hit the Little Sioux Scout Camp was one of 57 twisters reported Wednesday in Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota, according to the federal Storm Prediction Center.
Two people in Kansas were also killed: a woman found dead in a yard in Chapman, which was largely destroyed, and a man found dead outside a mobile home in Soldier.
The Kansas State University campus in Manhattan suffered more than $20 million in damage, with slate roofs torn off, windows blown out, historical limestone buildings ravaged and the Wind Erosion Research Unit "gone," according to Thomas M. Rawson, vice president of administration and finance. The building that houses the university's nuclear reactor was damaged, but the reactor was unharmed.
The twister was a major one, even in a state where many people have tornado safe rooms built into their homes. Mary Knapp, a climatologist in the university's agronomy department who has been tracking Kansas weather patterns of the past century, said yesterday's tornado activity was comparable to that which ripped through Manhattan in 1966. She called it "just absolutely amazing" that no serious injuries or fatalities were reported in Manhattan.
"Most of the area had over 45 minutes of warning that it's really coming, it's really big and it's really dangerous, which undoubtedly contributed to people being able to get into shelters," she said.
The past week's storms were caused by a stagnant cold front making its way slowly toward the Northeast, according to Jim Keeney, weather program manager for the National Weather Service's office in Kansas City, Mo. The front was expected to cause more thunderstorms in the Midwest last night before moving through Chicago and toward the Ohio River Valley.
"It probably will sweep through the East Coast by the end of next week," Keeney said.
Devastating as the tornadoes were, Iowa Homeland Security and Emergency Management spokesman Brett Voorhees said far more state resources are consumed by the flooding.
Iowa City is experiencing a "500-year flood" because of water flowing out of the Coralville Reservoir. The city has been evacuated, and attempts to preserve infrastructure will probably be abandoned, Keeney said.
"This is a record or near-record flood throughout the state," Voorhees said. "We're seeing water levels four or five feet over previous records. This is a very serious challenge; we are determined to work with local responders and thousands of volunteers who have performed heroic activities in building sand walls and other steps to protect their communities."
Cedar Rapids was also severely affected.
"There was a levee breach during the night. They had to evacuate a Red Cross shelter; we've had multiple boat rescues; we're losing power grids like crazy," said Courtney Green, press secretary for Iowa Gov. Chet Culver (D), of the situation in Cedar Rapids midday yesterday. "The jail is under water; we had to move prisoners; the sheriff's office is underwater. The river is still rising; it's still raining; there's a traffic mess; streets are closed."
Voorhees said the state hopes to recover in several predicted dry days.
"In spite of that, we have a major bubble of water that's moving down the Cedar River," he said.
Yesterday, the National Weather Service posted flash-flood or flood advisories or warnings along most of the Mississippi River above Tennessee.
The city of Austin, Minn., was split in half, with all east-west arteries closed, as floodwaters rose at the rate of a foot an hour.