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Parkersburg reflects on 10 year anniversary of devastating EF-5 tornado

“I wouldn’t want to live any other place.”

“I wouldn’t want to live any other place.”

Home is where the heart is.

“Well this is the kitchen obviously, and we spend a lot of time in here and same with the living room.”

Our homes tell our stories.

But for Virgil Goodrich and his wife, there’s one story that sticks out more than others.

“I can remember my wife saying ‘oh it’s bad’. I says ‘don’t worry, we can replace the house… we’re safe’. So that’s one thing I remember.”

It all goes back to May 25, 2008.

“All of a sudden, the wind picked up and it turned pitch black. The lights went out and our ears started to pop. And I said, ‘hang on honey, we’re going to go for a ride'”.

On May 25th, Parkersburg experienced the unthinkable.

“It was all quiet and all of a sudden it sounded like a freight train roaring in.”

“Literally for those that initially showed up, we thought 80 to 100 people were killed by the storm. No doubt about it,” says Chris Luring, the chief of police in Parkersburg at the time.

What happened in a matter of minutes scarred the entire community. But for Chris, it was even more personal.

“My aunt was basically killed on contact in the moment that storm hit. We have definite reason to believe that she was hit by debris and killed immediately.

Seven lives lost, dozens of people injured, and hundreds of Iowans asking why.

“We told people coming in to Parkersburg the day after the tornado: ‘Your house may be gone, but your home is never going to change.'”

Virgil and his wife took in a neighboring family and ran to the basement.

“I can remember that my wife was squeezing one of the little kids so hard, just trying to protect him of course.” 

In less than 10 minutes, Parkersburg was destroyed.

“It was a total disaster.” 

“There were no landmarks available. And the streets were– you couldn’t distinguish one from the other.”  

In the days and weeks after the tornado touched down, Parkersburg looked somewhat like a war zone. Now, ten years later, most things have been rebuilt or reconstructed, but the memory of that devastating day still lives on.

Ed Thomas was the high school football coach.

“I’d worked with him for 21 years and I’ve told people this a lot– that I’ve never met a man like him and I don’t think I ever will.” 

Coach Thomas helped spearhead the town’s cleanup.

“I think his goals became the community’s goals, his goals became the school’s goals, his goal became my goal.” 

“Him being determined that we were going to play our first home football game back on that field… it took a lot of community help to get that field back in playing condition.” 

Just a year after the tornado, tragedy hits again.

Coach Thomas was shot and killed inside the school’s weight room.

A community once struck with grief- now left in shock.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was just– that can’t happen here. But it did.” 

“Faith, family, and football. Those were his priorities.” 

“Coach Thomas would probably say it, too. We had a huge problem on our hands. But that problem also provided a huge opportunity to do the right thing and to do it better. And I can hear him saying that every single day. Sorry guys, ten years later it just doesn’t get old.” 

A decade later, with the help of family and friends, Parkersburg was able to rebuild.

“Now that you walk down this street, what’s it like to see it now?”

“You know it’s hard because the houses that were here before, the trees that were here before were beautiful. So sometimes people are like, well, you got a new town. But boy I tell you, that’s not the way to get a new town.” 

“I can’t say thank you enough for the response from Iowa to Parkersburg that day and the weeks after. I mean, I don’t pray for another storm to hit anywhere in Iowa of our magnitude, but I do pray that if it does hit, that all of Iowa will respond to that storm like they did here.” 

And as for Virgil and his wife– it may not have quite the same memories as in their home as they did before.

But at least for now…

“We try to make it a home.. best we can.” 

After Coach Thomas’s tragic death, his wife and sons set up the Ed Thomas Family Foundation which aims to keep his legacy alive for young adults across Iowa. They support young men and women through scholarships and upkeep of athletic facilities.

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