Meteorologist: 1968 Charles City tornado ‘will happen again’
By James Grob, [email protected]
According to meteorologist Chris Nelson, the F5-size tornado that devastated Charles City in 1968 is bound to happen somewhere again.
“I think the big thing for us with continuing education is to make sure that we are educating folks as to what happened,” Nelson said. “It can happen again — tomorrow, next week — it’s not a question of if, it’s when.”
Nelson, who owns Nelson Media Co., held a continuing education program at Charles City’s NIACC Center last Wednesday and talked with Charles City residents about how the F5 tornado that struck the community 54 years ago came to be. He also talked about how to stay safe during severe weather events.
Nelson said that the warming climate is leading to more and more severe weather events. He said that was a big reason why he partnered with the Charles City branch of NIACC for the class.
“We have a warmer planet, and it will continue to get warmer, whether it’s man-made or from natural causes,” Nelson said. “That’s going to bring in more violent weather.”
During the three-hour class, Nelson said Iowa has seen those kinds of weather events recently, and mentioned the 74 tornadoes that struck the state on Dec. 15, 2021, and the derecho that hit in August of 2020.
Many in Charles City are well aware of the history of the tornado 54 years ago. According to the National Weather Service, during the late afternoon and early evening of May 15, 1968, five tornadoes — including two F5s — occurred in Iowa as part of a widespread outbreak of 39 tornadoes which impacted 10 states. In Iowa, the tornadoes caused 18 fatalities and 619 injuries. Since this outbreak, no other tornadoes have produced this many deaths or injuries in Iowa.
There have only been two other F5 tornadoes in Iowa since 1968, one in Jordan in 1976, and one in Parkersburg in 2008.
The first F5 tornado moved through five counties and 65 miles. It affected Charles City at 4:47 p.m., destroying much of the area. Damage figures were estimated up to $30 million in Charles City. This tornado killed 13 and injured 462 others.
The second F5 tornado affected Fayette County at about the same time. It damaged or destroyed nearly 1,000 homes. The hardest hit areas were Oelwein and Maynard, where homes were completely swept away from their foundations. Five people were killed while 156 others were injured. Damage was estimated at $21 million.
“We heard stories from the people who were there in class,” Nelson said. “It was fascinating to hear some of the stories.”
Nelson went through the analysis of that day and the dynamics of the weather conditions that led to the event with the class. He also talked about how the business of predicting severe weather events has improved in the last 54 years.
“The fact is we can accurately predict weather events four to six days in advance now, thanks to better technology,” he said. “We also have a much better grasp of technology on the day of the events. We have so many tools at our disposal now.”
Nelson recommended that people get weather radios and weather apps on their phones.
“Everyone needs a weather radio, it’s affordable and you can write them off on your taxes,” he said. “Also make sure you have a weather app that automatically draws up those warnings.”
With those technological advances along with radio and television, Nelson said there is no reason for people to not be alert and aware of approaching severe weather events, and be able to take shelter in time.
“Nowadays we can give lead times 20 to 30 minutes ahead of the event, and even beyond that,” he said.