Iowa has been hit by a total of six F5 (now known as EF5) tornadoes, with winds of over 260 miles-per-hour. Today is the 50th anniversary of the deadliest day in that history. May 15, 1968, five tornadoes hit the Hawkeye state. Two of them were F5 tornadoes that hit eastern Iowa. Those two storms killed 18 and injured a total of 619 Iowans.

One of those F5's hit Oelwein and Maynard, striking Oelwein just before 5 p.m. Tornado sirens sounded for 15 seconds before they fell silent due to loss of power.

Tornado History Project
Tornado History Project

In Oelwein, nearly 70 homes were destroyed, with over 700 more damaged. Over 50 businesses were destroyed. In Maynard, over 25 houses were destroyed. In total, the 13-mile path of this tornado directly affected 965 families and losses were estimated at more than $20 million... remember, this is 1968.

Just minutes earlier, a tornado that originated northeast of Hampton some 45-minutes earlier struck Charles City. It was estimated to be a half-mile wide as it passed through the city. It damaged 60 percent of the town as it roared through. What it left behind was breathtakingly bad:

  • Destroyed: Over 370 homes; nearly 60 businesses
  • Major Damage: Almost 200 homes; 90 businesses
  • Minor damage: Over 350 homes; 46 businesses.
  • Also affected: Three schools and eight churches with over 1200 vehicles destroyed.
  • Debris confirmed to be from Charles City was found 35, 75, and 80 miles away.
  • Over 1500 families were directly affected by the tornado.
  • 450 injured, 76 hospitalized, and 13 people killed in the city.
  • Estimated damage: $30 million

The storm stayed on the ground for 65 miles and was nearly four football fields wide.

Charles City tornado tornado history

My wife, Julie, has relatives who lived in Charles City at the time. Her cousin, Jan, remembers that day well:

I was in 3rd grade at Jefferson school when my mom came to the school to admonish my teacher for keeping us after school, as the weather reports of possible tornadoes were coming in. We got home and we were watching "Barts Clubhouse" when Bart told all of us kiddos in Charles City to go to the basement!
It sounds just like they say, like a train is speeding upon the roof of your house! I will never forget seeing a man half in and half out of his truck as a building had collapsed on him. That tornado changed our town and our lives forever!😓

Thankfully, Iowa has seen almost no damaging tornadoes thus far in 2018, but we all know that can change at a moments notice. Our friends at Fox 28 will be airing a couple very interesting segments as part of their News at Nine. Wednesday, May 16, it's "Iowa's Tornado Alley." You'll learn which counties in Iowa most frequently see tornadoes. Thursday, May 16, "Parkersburg: In Their Own Words," looks back at Iowa's last EF5 tornado on May 25, 2008.

Fox 28 meteorologist Nick Stewart will join Brain and Courtlin on the KHAK morning show to discuss the specials Wednesday morning at 8:20.

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