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On Memorial Day weekend, 2008, an EF-5 tornado approached the Parkersburg area. It took a matter of minutes to tear through the town, and it left behind destruction no one in this area had ever experienced.
Hundreds of people were left homeless. But even as they grieved their loss, they began to rebuild.
“Ideally I’m hoping we can build right back here. Right on the same spot,” Parkersburg resident Mark Haren said at the time.
The Harens, along with many others, were true to their word. Five years later, the town almost looks like any other — with the exception of the trees, and an empty lot here and there.
“If you ask some people, they think it’s been about 10, 20 years ago. If you ask others, it’s been two weeks ago,” said City Administrator/Clerk Chris Luhring.
As Chief of Police at the time, Luhring helped lead the hundreds of first responders who came from dozens of Iowa communities. With their help, they were able to save many lives. Sadly, seven people in Parkersburg were killed, two more died in New Hartford.
“One of those was my aunt. And they were family members and fathers and aunts and uncles to so many people,” said Luhring. “Those people are still important. But we could have lost 80, 90, 100, 110 people.”
In the days after, Luhring recalls, the most difficult task was not whether to rebuild, but how to convince others that a new Parkersburg was possible.
“Having folks like Ed Thomas tell that to the world – that we’re going to rebuild our football field in 100 days, that really gets people on a whole ‘nother wave length, to ratchet forward and say, they’re going to do that. That’s confidence. That’s hope. That’s what rebuilding is all about,” said Luhring.
The pace at which Parkersburg rebuilt is inspiring. Although, there are still some things missing that cannot be replaced. Luhring sees that in his new role as City Administrator and Clerk. For example, they built a new City Hall, but when it comes to the city’s records…
“Everything is gone! And I literally have calls once a week, asking for this record or that record. And we just don’t have it. And that’s hard to tell people. Because we should have it! We’re supposed to have it. But we have a pretty good excuse,” said Luhring.
It’s not just old records that can’t be replaced. It’s the old memories.
“the hard part is, we’ve been extremely successful. But no one here would trade success for what happened. They’d go back to their old homes, their old vehicles, their old lives. Because that was home,” Luhring explained.
But they’re thankful for everything they have — and for the hundreds of first responders, volunteers, and others who helped Parkersburg recover.
“The things they donated, the prayers they sent, we don’t have a clue what probably 99% of the people did for Parkersburg. All I can do is tell people in general, thank you. Thank you for everything,” Luhring added.