Tornado hit Washington 20 years ago

By David Hotle, The JOURNAL


Genie Davis will forever remember May 15, 1998 as the strangest day of her life.

At 5 p.m., she was at work in the Wagon Wheel, getting ready to go home. Davis said they hadn?t heard the tornado siren or get any kind of warning. She said that her daughter called and begged her to remain at the business, saying that people were coming in and hiding in the HyVee cooler. When the all clear was given, she drove down North Sixth, to East 15th Street and saw her house.

?I remember a fireman reached out and grabbed me with one arm,? she said. ?I wanted to go inside because my cats were in there. I think I was in shock.?

Davis said that her house had been destroyed by a tornado that cut a path through Washington. She had stayed at a nearby church while the family cleaned up debris. Davis commented that her daughter?s prom pictures were found in a neighboring yard.

Davis said the silver lining was that the disaster had brought her and her daughter closer together. However, she said that the tornado had ?ended (her) marriage.?

?Back at that time was when my mind really set that I needed to help other people,? Davis said. ?People were coming from all over to help us.?

At about 5:05 p.m. that day, warning sirens sounded after officials heard reports of a tornado heading toward Washington. About five minutes later, a funnel cloud about a quarter-mile wide cut an 18-mile path through Washington and the surrounding county, leaving 37 injured and an estimated 160 homeless, with reports of up to 25 homes destroyed, 15 with major damage, and 50 with minor damage. The storm came on the 30th anniversary of a tornado that had killed 18 in northeastern Iowa communities of Oelwein and Charles City.

At the time, Sheriff Yale Jarvis was visiting a restaurant with his wife in Oskaloosa. The two had just been served when his pager went off letting him know that a tornado was on the ground had been spotted heading into Washington.

They jumped into their car and returned to Washington ?post haste.? He said some people may have called it speeding trying to get back to help with the incident.

Arriving back in Washington, the first thing Jarvis noticed was the smell of gas. As he travelled into town, he found significant damage from the storm.

The tornado was the worst of 12 tornadoes that hit Iowa that day, causing a reported $20 million in damages. Extensive damage was reported to Washington, including damage to dozens of homes, a church, and an apartment house. Tornado damage in Washington County was listed between $8.2 million to $10 million.

Bob Youngquist was another resident who got a look at the tornado that was too close for comfort. A music teacher at the high school, he had wanted nothing more than to have the annual awards ceremony that night. Mother nature had other plans.

As Youngquist was posting a sign at the community center announcing a cancellation, the tornado appeared to form over his head. At the time, Youngquist said that the funnel had started out mildly, like whirling leaves. He said there was no sound and the cloud appeared ?amazingly innocent.? The storm quickly grew to monstrous proportions.

Thinking back 20 years, Youngquist remembered he had an awards night planned at the center. He and his daughter Heather were driving to the center to put up the sign due to the tornado warning. They had just been to the community center and put the sign up. On their way back, going past Sunset Park, they saw it.

?There was a tornado paralleling us as we were driving home,? Youngquist said. ?As we were driving home down Madison Street, it was obvious the tornado was there to our right.?

Heather yelled to her father that they should get into a ditch. Unfortunately, the only ditch available was right in the damage path of the tornado.

Youngquist remembers seeing a house explode before jumping over part of the city, to land again on the northeast side.

The tornado travelled off the Johnson County.

Youngquist remembers despite the tornado, on the other side of Washington there were still farmers in their fields plowing. He said it was like it was just a normal day.

With the tornado out of the county, Jarvis began the task of beginning the cleanup. He said that a base of operations was set up.

On the northeast side of town, ribbons were tied on doors to signify all were accounted for and out. This is the area that was hardest hit. Jarvis recalls teams looking for a woman who hadn?t been accounted for. It was later found that she was out of the area.

In conferring with the disaster service administrator, Jarvis asked for help from the National Guard. As they were assessing the damage, Jarvis said that Gov. Terry Branstad had shown up and offered help. Jarvis asked him to help activate the National Guard to provide help.

As the days went on, Jarvis said he was amazed at the number of people who showed up to offer assistance. Jarvis reported much of the debris had been removed in 48 hours.

Volunteers provided an estimated 10,000 man-hours of assistance. The Washington County Board of Supervisors later voted to give up to $500 per household to homes hit by the tornado.