CHARLES CITY — After an F-5 tornado 50 years ago damaged several churches but left all the bars standing in town, church bells rang out at 4:50 Tuesday afternoon throughout Charles City to mark the minute of the 1968 storm that severely damaged the community.
The Floyd County Historical Museum hosted a ceremony to not only unveil a new exhibit on the tornado, but to honor the 13 people who died as a result of the storm.
Carnatte Starr was eight years old when the tornado hit, killing her grandmother Sadie Chambers. Starr’s house was also hit head on, trapping her inside. She says, “We were trucked to Mason City, we were the first people over there. When the relatives found out where we were, we stayed with my dad’s brother quite a bit and my mom’s sister quite a bit because our house was gone.”
David McCartney currently lives in Iowa City but grew up in Charles City and was almost 12-years-old when the tornado struck. McCartney says his family lived about a mile outside of town, but they went into Charles City after the tornado struck, looking to help. He says it was a shock to see the destruction. He says, “We walked past my grade school, which I had been in just a few hours before, and seeing that torn open and being able to see into the classroom that I was sitting…just tore my heart out. It was at that moment that I began to realize that I can’t take anything for granted. I can’t assume that things are going to be as they are forever. And that’s a pretty heavy thing for a nearly 12-year-old to learn.”
McCartney says he enjoyed coming back to see the new display, but overall had mixed emotions reflecting back to 1968. He says, “I feel so proud of my home town, and I feel so sad today. It was a very emotional day anyway, realizing there was so much that uprooted the community in just a few minutes. That’s all it took for much of Charles City to be demolished or damaged in that short period of time.”
Dennis Tierney lives in rural Charles City and was working at the Oliver tractor factory when the power went out, but nobody knew that a tornado was moving in toward Charles City. He stepped outside, looking between buildings into the southern sky where he caught a glimpse of the tornado. He says, “I just started yelling tornado. Those guys crowding…they wanted to maybe see something, and they were crowding out by the door. I said ‘You can go that way if you wanna, I’m going the other direction’, so I ran down to the next department and slid under a foreman’s office. I told a couple of guys to slide under there. It sucked one of the walls out in the next department where I worked.”
Once the tornado passed, factory employees were asked to help in the downtown area. He says, “I couldn’t even tell where I was really, you know down Main Street. You could see some of the big two-story houses kind of to the east of Main Street. To me they looked like doll houses because it looked like someone cut them in half, and half of it was there and the other half was gone. You could see the rooms, and there was still stuff in the rooms. Part of the house was gone and the rest was still there.”
Besides the 13 deaths, 450 injuries were reported, with the tornado causing $30 million in damage.
Full interview with Carnatte Starr
Full interview with David McCartney
Full interview with Dennis Tierney
Raw audio of ceremony at Floyd County Historical Museum