Tornado–EF2 Tornado damages homes in Howard, Fillmore

The Mitch Shultz family, living on the former Gailen Johnson farm, northwest of Lidtke Mill, escaped injury when the twister came through. One daughter slept through the ruckus.

The roof of the Jewel Kiefer home was torn off. By fortune or not, Mrs. Kiefer had been admitted to the hospital earlier that week.

By Dan Evans and Marcie Klomp

Following a path from north of Riceville through the countryside between Chester and Lime Springs and on to Minnesota, a tornado devastated homes, machinery, sheds, grain bins and more this past Sunday, May 22.

The National Weather Service in LaCrosse, Wis., issued a warning at 2:43 p.m. for northwest Howard County in Iowa and Fillmore County in southeast Minnesota. Volunteer spotters indicated a tornado was on the ground at 2:45 p.m. three miles north of Riceville, heading northeast. Chester Fire Chief Jeff Wendel was on storm watch. At about 3:00 p.m., “Tom (Wendel) and I were heading south when the tornado came from the west. I waited for help and dropped Tom at Kenny (Murphy’s). I don’t ever want to see something like that again.”

It was the same system that hit the Harmony, Minn. area and went on to bash LaCrosse, Sparta and Tomah, Wis.

It was easy to follow the tornado as damage was everywhere in its path. Different reports have the twister being three-quarters to one mile wide.

A bridge just off County V-10 had an electrical pole bent 45-degrees and had signs completely twisted and bent over on the bridge. Other road signs were on the ground and debris was found in fields along its trail. Many homes and farms were also devastated by the twister.

Fortunately, of all the homes and farms hit, nobody was badly injured. There were some close calls. One individual was taken to the hospital, but with a minor head injury and another needed some stitches.

Sheriff Mike Miner said a few horses had to be put down in the area north of Riceville, but other than that, livestock loss was minimal.

Many homesteads in Howard County were hit hard—leaving few buildings standing, demolishing sheds, barns and more. Amazingly, most of the houses were still structurally sound.

During and after the tornado, emergency crews were out and about checking on residents and roads. One of the biggest obstacles they faced was the downed power lines. There were 20-plus down in the Kenny Murphy area and eight near the Joe Pisney farm, Tri-County (Fillmore, Houston and Winona) had 39 poles to fix, to name just a few.

In a press release, Hawkeye REC reported 850 customers out of electricity at one point. Hourly the number dwindled.

The power was off in Chester for a little while, which made it difficult to reach the command center at the fire station. Wendel said it was out for about 15 minutes before the generator was turned on and power was restored to the town shortly thereafter.

The warning siren sounded in Lime Springs after Wendel’s tornado warning. Not long after that, the electricity went out. Travis Mahr was one of the Lime Springs firefighters who went out on the call. He commented on the large number of downed power lines.

The town of Lime Springs was out of power for about 12 hours. Many houses were aglow at around 3:40 a.m. when it came back on.

Wendel kept track of all the happenings with help from Howard County Emergency Management Director Darrell Knecht. “We had good cooperation from all entities,” said Wendel. “We did an initial search and then a secondary search through every township to check on people.”

Lime Springs firefighter Ron Fitzgerald, who helped with the search commented, “Everyone was already cleaning up. Half a dozen neighbors were there with chainsaws helping clean up. Just into Minnesota, some of the poles were sucked right out of the ground.”

Jimmy Miller, who works for Howard County, was one of the crew out Sunday afternoon putting up “Road Closed” barricades, trying to keep locals off the roads and safe. “It’s a mess. The closed roads were due to power lines—not really debris,” he explained.

Patty Ruggeberg said her LP guy was even around checking on the LP tanks to make sure they were undamaged from the twister.

Fox Home

The tornado first hit the home of Richard Fox, who was actually in the home at the time. According to friends, Fox was sitting in his chair, talking on the phone when the tornado hit. He told them it hit and took the front window out and then the roof. Fox managed to stay in his chair, holding on for dear life!

The Fox farm, located approximately two miles east of Highway V-10, was wiped out, as the roof of the house was taken completely off and rain damaged much of the home. The kitchen was completely exposed as well as the living room upstairs.

A shed was entirely gone, as were bins and more. It was like a war zone with tree limbs everywhere.

Workers had already started helping Fox with his home, as Farmers Feed and Grain had a semi-trailer there for him to store anything of value, while others just moved items or cleaned.

Felper Home

The Felper farm was a little more fortunate as their home was saved with just some damage done to the roof. However, everything else was totally demolished, including a 100-year-old barn and several sheds.

Both Denny and Arlene Felper were not home when it hit. However, their son was in the old house, also located at 6697 Fir Ave.

“My wife was out shopping in Decorah and I had just left 20 minutes earlier,” said Felper, who was still amazed at all the damage found on his property. “My son, Todd, was in the old house. He was upstairs in his bedroom when it hit. He was hit by one of the windows in his back, but still managed to make it down to his basement. Fortunately he’s fine. All the windows in the old house went.”

Felper looked at his machinery and stated that a shed used to stand over them—they were now out in the open—the shed completely gone. They lost their barn, where the top was actually lifted and then dropped right next to the road. Several other sheds were also lost.

“The only thing left is the new house,” said Felper. “It even took all our groves. I’m just glad nobody was hurt.”

A truck owned by Kenny Gronwoldt had its roof smashed in from the tornado. He was visiting Todd and had just left to find a hayrack for a potential hayride later that day. The truck had only 38,000 miles on it, but it started.

Kaski Home

Home alone with her three children, Angie Kaski was watching the tornado heading in her direction while inside her home, located just west of Hayden Prairie.

“I actually saw the tornado out my big picture window,” said Kaski. “Then mud hit the window . . . and that’s when I told the boys to get down into the basement. My home is the only thing left standing, otherwise all else is lost.”

The Kaski farmstead lost some grain bins, sheds and more. Grain wagons were twisted in the backyard, with one flipped. Out in the field was their horse trailer approximately 500 yards away, along with twisted pieces of metal from the bins.

“My truck wasn’t touched, however,” added Kaski. “But the shed roof was pretty much gone where the truck sits. I was too shaken to drive it out from under the damaged shed, so a neighbor volunteered and moved it.”

She stated that her husband, Eric, was in Omaha, Neb. working for the Union Pacific Railroad and was already on his way back home.

“He won’t believe what he sees once he gets there,” added Kaski.

Already neighbors were at the farmstead looking to help where needed. “We really do have great neighbors,” added Kaski. She was home with her boys, Adrian (age 11), Wyatt (four) and Landen (three).

Other Farms

The Gary and Steve Meyer home was damaged and the Darrell Ruggeberg property lost all its buildings. Ruggeberg said, “It took out our barn, four bins, storage units and grove.” There was no house on the property.

Sheriff Miner said the Paul Retterath farm lost some trees. “There was a lot of farm ground in the path of the tornado which kept down on the damage,” he commented.

Ruggeberg Farm

Up the road, Ruggeberg’s son, Lee and Patty Ruggeberg’s, farm was also in the tornado’s path.

“We lost a big tin shed, the barn and more,” stated Lee Ruggeberg, who was outside when the tornado approached. “I had just completed moving my lawn and was standing in the doorway of my shed when I saw it (the tornado) swirling. I saw a bin in the air and ran.”

Dodging dime-size hail, Ruggeberg quickly found his way down to his basement where he watched trees turning and twisting outside.

“I saw branches floating around and knew the tornado was right there,” he added. “The three trees that are all knocked down over there (pointing next to his drive) were the ones swirling.”

The family had lost its house in a fire several years ago and was very “thankful” the new one survived this time. “Even the roof stayed,” said Ruggeberg. “I guess it pays to put a ton of extra screws in when you put on a tin roof.”

The buildings were scattered throughout his lawn and along the fence line just east of his farm. He was pleased that an Allis-Chalmers tractor was untouched and that his semi-trailer looked to be in good shape.

He lost his grove, barn, metal shed and had damage to his work shop. Amazingly, the tornado left a small bin untouched.

“I guess we’re fortunate that our ‘tent’ survived, but the rest of the property didn’t do so well,” joked Ruggeberg, who was just happy to be alive. “I just had the lawn mowed—now look at this mess!”

While Ruggeberg was assessing the damage, wife Patty, who was on her way home from a trip, was calling family and friends. So help was at his place moments after the tornado hit. Trees in his lane were cleared by 5:00 p.m. and others were raking his lawn and moving materials to piles already.

Patty was thankful to everyone. “The Howard County Sheriff’s Department was out here and made sure we were okay and made sure we had access to the Red Cross. This is what a small community is all about.”

(Darrell Knecht explained anyone who was displaced by the tornado could receive free lodging from the Red Cross.)

Kenny Murphy Farm

One of the hardest hit areas was the Kenny Murphy farm where the house was lifted by the tornado and then dropped on its foundation. Murphy, 96, was in the home at the time.

His son, Mark, said “He was in the living room when the barn came across the yard and hit the house. He never heard it or saw it coming, and he didn’t have the radio or TV on. He was reading the newspaper and the next thing he knew, he was under the furniture.”

An electrical line and transformer were in the road when the Chester Fire Department arrived at the farm. Firefighters noticed he was a little incoherent and had a bruise on his head. It was challenging for the LeRoy Ambulance to get to his place with all the downed power lines. Murphy was removed from his residence with assistance of the Chester Fire Department and LeRoy Ambulance. Murphy is reported to be doing fine.

Friends and family were rummaging through the home, looking to store anything they could for Mr. Murphy. The home was totally demolished, with the roof ripped off and the home settled into the basement and ground. Sheds were gone with pieces laying all throughout the farm and area fields.

The tornado took a tree and, like a speer, threw it into the bed of his pickup and through the cab.

Tom Cray Bins

After leaving Murphy, the twister then hit some bins owned by Tom Cray. One was picked up and tossed into the field about 300 yards away. Another was twisted and totally destroyed. A third bin was filled with corn and was relatively undamaged.

Jewel Kiefer

The LeRoy Fire Department and Howard County Sheriff’s Department responded to the Jewel Kiefer home, located just west of Chester on Key Ave. Trees were twisted and branches sprawled throughout the yard, including trees dropped, roots and all.

The home was a complete loss with the roof taken off the home. Any out-buildings, including a trailer house, were also lost to the tornado.

Fortunately, Kiefer was not home. She had been taken to the hospital earlier in the week. With the damage to her house, she might have been a casualty.

Highway 63

The storm crossed Highway 63, taking out groves and groves of trees, many owned by Rick and Bob Ullom. Traffic had to be diverted around the area as “rubberneckers” made travel hazardous by stopping suddenly to look at the damage.

Three miles to the north and Chester would have been taken out. Three miles to the south and it would have been Lime Springs. Luckily, the tornado that hit the area cut a swath through the countryside between the two towns.

George Ellison Farm

Sheryl Ellison said the tornado took everything but the house at the home place, brother George’s farm.

“They (George and wife) had just remodeled. It took all the trees around the house but the Lord saved the house.”

The twister took out the big barn, silo and big machine shed, all of which were made of heavy oak. None of the timber went into the neighbor’s field but dropped. “We had to jack the building up and drag out the vehicles,” stated Sheryl. The good car, pickup and another car were smashed pretty good.

Shultz Home

The Mitch and Carolee Shultz home, formerly Gailen Johnson, was completely destroyed by the tornado and the family, the couple have four children, is lucky to be alive. Mitch said they were all taking a nap when they heard the wind picking up. “My wife was looking around and hollered it was getting worse. The wind started whistling and I yelled for everyone to get in the basement.” They all made it except their 14-year-old daughter, who slept through the tornado, waking up when it was all over!

“It was an unreal feeling to see the damage that was done,” Shultz described.

The attached garage was blown away leaving a large hole in the side of the house. The house was totalled, the cars were totalled and the barn was totalled.

On Monday, he said, “Our whole Church (Church of God in Christ Mennonite) helped us haul our furniture out last night. The neighbors picked up our calves and took care of our livestock.” They lost one pig and one chicken and one calf had to be put down. They were still looking for their cats. Later that day, a group from church helped contain the fire as the house was burned down.

Shultz, a nurse at St. Marys added they were staying with friends for a few days until a house becomes available.

Jim Lensch Farm

The storm took off the top of the silo and left other minor damage at the Jim Lensch Farm.

Perry Yutzy Home

The former John South residence had quite a few trees uprooted and damage to the buildings. Perry Yutzy described, “I was in the house and looked out the window. It was getting darker and darker and then the wind picked up. I started for the basement. When I looked out the window and saw the tree go, I thought ‘I better hurry up!’”

The twister took the trees around the house but left the structure alone. The south end of the barn was caved in and moved it “out of square.” It also threw some trees on top of Yutzy’s vehicle. He observed, “We have a mess, but we’re lucky.”

Richard Tibbals Farm

Being in the valley, the Richard Tibbals farm caught a lot of debris from other farms but also had the top of the silo twist in the high winds.

Galen Klingsheim Farm

The farm had damage to many of the buildings and had twisted trees around it, but Klingsheim managed to get his generator going to milk cows Sunday night.

Joe Pisney Farm

The only ones home at the Joe Pisney farm were sophomore Sarah and youngsters Trent and Tyler. Joe recalls, “We (the rest of the family) were on our way to a graduation party when Sarah called to say stuff was flying through the yard. We told her to get in the basement and we headed home.”

When they started going up the lane, they saw downed trees in their grove and that the hoop building was wrecked. There was also damage to the barn and other buildings.

Their first order of business was getting the trees off the fences to keep the cattle enclosed.

Joe couldn’t believe how a tree on the west side of their yard landed in their grove, on the east side of the property, but left the picnic table in its place.

Rick Hovey Farm

The Hovey family has never been one to tempt fate. When there is a storm, they head to the basement, which is what they did on Sunday. Hovey said, “First it downpoured and hailed. Then, we went in the basement and it roared just like it does on T.V. Everyone was screaming but it was so loud all I could do was see their mouths moving. I couldn’t here them.”

The experience was so scary, kindergartner Alexandria hasn’t left a family member’s side since it happened.

When he walked into the bedroom it felt like he was going to be sucked through the window. The family had left the windows open in the house, which fared pretty well. The trailer house had all its windows closed and several were blown out.

Even standing in his yard with branches and power lines down, Hovey kept his sense of humor. “We have a can house that we haven’t emptied in six months. We lost about three-quarters of the pop and beer cans. They’re probably strewn from here to Wisconsin!”

Alvin Mihm Farm

The storm didn’t stop at state lines. It had no trouble crossing over into Minnesota and causing havoc there as well. The first place it hit was the Alvin Mihm farm.

He recalls, “It was thundering and coming up fast. We (with wife Nona) went to the basement. I was a few steps ahead and she got cut by a flying piece of glass.” Her grandson took Nona to the hospital to get stitched up.

When asked what got hit, Alvin joked, “Let me tell you what didn’t get hit. It would be a lot faster.” He really wasn’t kidding as the storm took his 99×40 ft. machine shed, another shed 80×64 ft., fence, his tractor windows, door and roof, and other structures around the farm. About the only thing left standing was their home, which had all the windows blown out.

“It blew glass from the front door into the living room.”

Mark Hebrink Farm

Amazingly, although the twister took off the roof of a hog barn, Mark Hebrink didn’t lose one of his 2,400 head. He did lose or had damage to a barn, two silos and three machine sheds, four steel sheds and three hog barns. Luckily Mark wasn’t home when the tornado went through.

Ben Phillips Farm

Much of Hebrink’s debris landed in neighbor Ben Phillips’ field. Phillips was home at the time. He heard rain hitting the window and went out to the garage to take a look. When he saw what was coming, he tried to open the screen door to get back in the house to the basement and was unable to budge it. His dog wasn’t any help as she was trying to climb on top of him she was so scared.

Within an hour, his farmyard was full of his four children, grandchildren, friends and Amish neighbors. He lost two buildings, a well house, barn and silo, machine shed, two steel bins and trees.

He was surprised when the Amish offered to help him start cleaning up Sunday afternoon, the day of rest.

The storm continued on its path, heavily damaging the Love grain bins on Highway 44 and doing some leaps and bounds over Harmony and into Preston.

Responding to the tornado were area fire departments, including Chester, Lime Springs, Cresco, LeRoy, Elma, Riceville and Protivin. The Howard and Mower County Sheriff’s Departments and Iowa and Minnesota State Patrol were also called out. Ambulances responded from Howard County and LeRoy.

With the amount of damage seen from the tornado, many people said it could have been worse. Nobody was seriously injured and few livestock were lost. Trees and buildings can be replaced. People can’t.

Chester firefighter Adam Hamilton was impressed with the community. “It didn’t take long for people from Chester to start bringing food, pop and water to the fire station.”

Wendel said of the ordeal, “It went very well. It just goes to show that training pays off.”

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