On the evening of Thursday, April 13, 2006, fifteen tornadoes tore through eastern Iowa and western Illinois – with the Iowa City area being one of the hardest-hit communities. Damage from the F-2 tornado was concentrated in a 5-mile swath that stretched from Menards along Highway 1 in southwest Iowa City to Dairy Queen on Riverside Drive to dozens of residences on the eastern end of Iowa Avenue (see map above). An estimated $15 million in damage was caused by the storm, but fortunately, no casualties were reported.
Here, on this page, we’d like to share three of the more memorable storm stories from that April evening in 2006…
On this Iowa City map from 1900 (below) we indicate the location of the Walsh home – 930 Iowa Avenue – which was built in 1848.
“It was 8:35 Thursday night, April 13. I’ll always remember the time because all of the clocks stopped when the electricity went out,” said Gloria Walsh, whose Iowa City home – located at 930 Iowa Avenue – was badly damaged. That night Walsh and her husband, Ron, were huddled in the basement of their 158-year-old home, watching for the latest weather reports. They had been out for dinner earlier in the evening and knew a storm was rolling in, but Walsh said they did not expect the tornado that would rip through downtown Iowa City and their neighborhood.
“My husband came upstairs to see what was happening, and when he got to the top of the stairs the sirens went off. He came back down and told me he heard the fire engine noise that everybody talks about,” Walsh said, describing the sound of the storm. “When he came back down the stairs he basically, by about 15 seconds, missed all the flying debris.”
Walsh and her husband live in the east side of the home and rent out the west side, separated by a common wall down the middle. Thankfully, Walsh said, she, her husband and the tenants next door were not injured during the storm.
For days after the tornado, the median along Iowa Avenue filled with debris and parts of damaged buildings hauled there by residents and the more than 430 volunteers who helped clean up around the city.
The Alpha Chi Omega Sorority House was built on East Washington Street in the early 1920’s – the picture (below) was taken by SUI photographer – Fred W. Kent in 1927. On this Iowa City map from 1900 (below) we indicate the location – 828 E. Washington Street.
Leslie Prideaux was chapter president of the University of Iowa’s Alpha Chi Omega sorority in 2006. On the night of the storm, as a journalism student, she was reporting on the visit of a New York Times writer at Van Allen Hall. “At the time, I thought it was awesome that we had a tornado warning because the speaker had to stop her speech and I was able to get one-on-one time with her,” said Prideaux, who now is president of the University of Northern Iowa Alumni Association. “But while I was interviewing this writer, my phone kept vibrating.”
The person on the other end was a sorority sister calling to tell Prideaux that a large part of the roof and the majority of the eastern wall of their sorority house had been stripped from the building. Prideaux said at first she didn’t believe it, but moments later, she got a call from the house mother, Claudia Streets, who told her it was no joke. Prideaux said the chapter adviser and her husband picked her up from Van Allen and tried to get her to the house.
“I would say within 40 minutes at the most, I was able to get to the house. We couldn’t get a car to the house because there were so many trees blocking our way,” she said. “My parents were actually able to get down here from Waterloo to meet me, so I didn’t have to see the house by myself.”
The women living in the home sought shelter at the Iowa Memorial Union, where the American Red Cross had set up emergency housing for people displaced by the storm. That same night they returned to their damaged building to begin picking up the pieces and saving what they could.
“When the tornado came through, it came through College Green Park, came up Washington Street, and then took a turn through our house on Governor and then finished out on Iowa Avenue,” Prideaux said. “When it did that, it twisted our foundation of our house, so it wasn’t salvageable at all.” She said she was relieved that none of the 46 women who lived in the house were injured by the storm, though one was taken to the hospital after stepping on a nail.
St. Patrick’s was the second parish founded in Iowa City after St. Mary’s. The Rev. M. V. Rice celebrated the first mass on March 23, 1873, the cornerstone on East Court Street was laid on June 13, 1878, and the parish opened on February 2, 1879. On this Iowa City map from 1900 (below) we indicate the church’s location – 228 E. Court Street.
On the night the tornado came through, the historic church had just finished Holy Thursday Mass – three days before Easter Sunday. By 8:15 that evening, according to Rev. Rudolph Juarez, most of the parishioners had gone home, but about 40 people remained in the church.
When the sirens sounded, Juarez and Deacon Jerry Miller led parishioners to the basement of the rectory next door. About 10 to 15 minutes after the tornado passed, Juarez came up to see what damage had been done. “I thought we would probably have some windows blown out of the church. That was my initial thought. I peered out and I could see the sky through what was supposed to be the roof of the church,” Juarez said. “The 80-foot steeple was gone, and the whole front wall of the church was gone. My initial reaction was shock and disbelief.”
Juarez said although the damage was devastating, he was so thankful that no one from the church was injured.
“I remember being very thankful that no lives were lost at St. Patrick, and in Iowa City, really. Most of what we saw was material and collateral damage. Cars and businesses and buildings,” Juarez said. “Those things can be replaced, but people can’t be replaced.”
In total, the storm caused an estimated $15 million in damage, injured about 30 people, but fortunately, caused no casualties in Iowa City. A significant portion of that $15 million was due to the loss of St. Patrick church, but by December 2006, 300 building permits had been issued for nearly $3.7 million worth of restoration work.
Residents of historic homes that were damaged received a total of about $250,000 in Historic Resource Development Program grants, and fourteen homes qualified for $15,000 each.
Rick Fosse, Iowa City’s public works director at the time of the tornado, said, “Inside every disaster is an opportunity, and this tornado hit some historic conservation districts. After working with the state Legislature and receiving the historic preservation grants, some of these historic homes looked better than before.”
The Alpha Chi Omega Sorority House was completely rebuilt at the same location – 828 E. Washington Street – and opened in 2008.
St. Patrick’s moved to a new east-side location – rebuilding with a brand new campus – 4330 Saint Patrick Drive – with a dedication ceremony held on November 29, 2009.
After the storm, the Walsh’s were told by insurance agents that their home was not salvageable. But having grown up in the long-standing house at 930 Iowa Avenue, Gloria Walsh was determined to save it, so they rented from friends in Cedar Rapids for a year until the old house was ready for them to come back home.