Young people and those living outside of Charles City may not realize that May 15th marks an important anniversary for the Charles City community. 50 years ago, “at 4:50 PM nature shed its robes of spring glory and lashed out at picturesque Charles City with one of its most heinous brainstorms – a devastating tornado apparently unparalleled in Iowa history.
Into its wild and roaring belly, it snatched 90 square blocks, leaving a prodigious and grim specter of death, torn lives, wrecked buildings, and demolished property.
Neither photographs nor words can convey the astonishment, horror, and shock of Charles City residents who survived to witness the ruins, but the savage winds left their mark in the debris, rubble, and chaos that followed.”
Two brothers, who were just beginning their long career with First Security, were there to witness it. Bill and Dick Herbrechtsmeyer, both Board Members and past Presidents and CEOs of First Security, recount their experience of the 1968 Charles City tornado.
The First Security Bank in Charles City has 3 locations. The one most customers access is a 2-story building on Clark Street. However, in 1968, a series of businesses sat on the lot that First Security now occupies. First Security used to be North and West of this location, about 3 blocks away, and was 3-stories tall.
Dick remembers people were still at work when the tornado hit. Someone yelled to get into the basement and those that couldn’t took shelter beneath their desks. The windows on the South side of the building blew in and the windows on the North side blew out.
“It was like a vacuum, everything was sucked out. All our papers and documents were gone,” said Dick. “A paid loan document ended up in Elma.”
According to meteorologists from that time, calculations could be made based on “clear concentric circles left in the turf. The core of the tornado is known to have been 360 feet in diameter with a wind velocity of not less than 528 miles per hour. It ripped through Charles City at a speed of 40 miles per hour, taking just about two minutes to traverse the 1 ½ miles of homes, businesses, churches and schools.”
Dick had been out on a call with a customer, so was able to go home to take shelter in his basement. It is unbelievable that his house survived the tornado, despite being in its path. His family’s house was the only one on the block that survived. However, the windows and doors in his house had blown out and all cars in the area were destroyed.
After checking on neighbors, Dick and Bill went to check on the bank after hearing reports of looting in town. First Security did not experience this, and security had been placed throughout the town to protect others.
“The bank looked like it had been TP’d. Rolls of paper were hanging from the rafters,” commented Dick. “Everyone worked together to straighten things out. We put papers in boxes and started sorting and rebuilding books by the light of candles, kerosene lamps, and flashlights. Despite everything, our customers were very honest and cooperative. We all worked together to get all the records back in order.”
President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the storm a federal disaster. The National Guard and Red Cross moved in to help and countless hours provided by volunteers and community members were devoted to cleaning up and rebuilding the town. White Farm used their tractors and equipment to remove debris from the top of vehicles and they were then hauled to Lions Field.
“If someone’s car went missing during the storm, they’d go to Lion’s Field to see if they could find it in the wreckage there,” said Dick.
It’s difficult to even imagine the destruction of the community and the despair so many felt that day. “The path of destruction inside Charles City was five blocks wide with the center two blocks being virtually annihilated. 1203 homes, 265 businesses, and 1250 cars were heavily damaged or destroyed. Of the 3600 families in Charles City, 2200 were directly affected, more than 500 were injured, and 13 dead. Personal property losses inside Charles City amounted to more than 25 million dollars.”
“It was an eerie time– walls and windows were missing, yet the blinds still rattled in the wind. All the street lights were gone,” said Dick. “It was dark all summer.”
The tornado happened on a Wednesday and, incredibly, the bank had opened its doors by the following Monday and everything balanced within $20.
Charles Citians “looked at the enormous ruins, wept a little, rescued the injured, and dug in to restore all that had been lost…they displayed a unified determination that their city must be restored.”
Excerpts were obtained from a booklet that the Kiwanis Club sponsored shortly after the tornado. These excerpts were written by Dr. Thomas Shotwell and Bill J. Palmer, and the booklet was sold as a fundraiser to assist disaster victims.
Photos are from both 1968 editions of the Charles City Press and the Kiwanis Club booklet (whose photos were submitted by Sheriff L.L. Lane and Boyd’s Studio of Charles City, Vernon Boyd proprietor).
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