Monday, May 16, 2011

Still Healing

Originally written Spring 2009

One Year Anniversary of the Parkersburg Tornado

Tracie Van Hauen endured the Parkersburg tornado, her 6-foot-4-inch body huddled beneath the basement stairs of her new home. Minutes later, she emerged a different person. The scratches from the debris have healed, but the emotional scars are still embedded deep within Tracie, though every day she progresses toward her goal.

“I’m just trying to get back to normal,” Van Hauen said.

During a series of email and phone call conversations, she relived her experience with the tornado that completely demolished her first home not even one year ago. Van Hauen, 28, purchased her home in Parkersburg in February 2008, and had just spent three months renovating it.

She survived the mile-wide EF5 tornado that took the lives of seven people in Iowa and destroyed nearly half the town of Parkersburg. Nine months later, she and her family are still dealing with the aftershock. Her father, Dale, still hasn’t recovered emotionally, and he doesn’t like to talk about it, Van Hauen said.

Originally from Wellsburg, Iowa, Van Hauen grew up the middle child of a medical secretary at McFarland Clinic in Marshalltown, Rosie, and a manager at Heartland Coop in Grundy Center, Dale. While attending Wellsburg-Steamboat Rock High School, Van Hauen participated in basketball, volleyball, softball and track. She graduated with a degree in marketing from the University of Northern Iowa, and got a job doing inside sales and purchasing at Iowa Sports Supply. Her favorite baseball team is the Boston Red Sox.

But when it comes to playing a sport, her father’s interest affects her favorite choice.

“My dad is a huge basketball fan,” she said. “He didn’t know as much about volleyball, so he couldn’t really dog me on it.” Volleyball was her favorite, though she admitted basketball was her best.

“She was the star of the team,” her cousin Michael Paterni, 21, said with a giggle, noting Van Hauen’s modesty. “But she’d never admit that.”

Before the tornado, Van Hauen enjoyed storms. Not because she finds them calming or exciting, but because they’re part of nature.

“It was cool to watch lightning,” she said. “Not anymore.”

Van Hauen used to stand outside with her father to watch tornados in towns far from them. She would only get upset if thunderstorms woke her up in the middle of the night.

Before the tornado, Van Hauen said she was very independent, leaning really only on her close-knitted family for help and support. She usually visited them once or twice a week. Aside from them, she wanted to do things on her own, she said.

“She’s just a strong person,” Paterni said to describe her attitude. “She usually doesn’t need help, and she likes it that way.”

With the help of her close family, Van Hauen spent three months renovating her Parkersburg home and by the time she finally moved in, it looked just the way she had always pictured her first house to look like, she said.

“I loved that house.”

She moved into the house nine days before the tornado struck. It was gone in less than 30 seconds.

“The day of the tornado was my dad’s birthday,” - Sunday, May 25, 2008, Tracie Van Hauen said.

That day was picturesque—a small-town Iowa family gathered to celebrate the father’s birthday. Dad, Mom, grandma, her sister and boyfriend, were there. And Van Hauen’s little spaniel puppy Bandit joined the family.

“They arrived around noon and we all had dinner at my new house,” Van Hauen said.

She still had a few more things to put into place before the renovations were completed, so she and her father did a few more little projects around her house. She said she’s not sure what everyone else did. Around 3:00 p.m., her family left.

She had just laid down for a nap with Bandit when her cell phone rang. Her father, about 20 miles from her, could see that the sky was black over in her direction.

“I could see that it was raining, the biggest rain drops I had ever seen,” Van Hauen said. But then the rain stopped. Her father told her to “keep an eye on the sky.”

Shortly after she got off the phone with her father, her sister Sara called. There was a tornado spotted in Ackley, she said—just 10 miles away. Immediately after she hung up, her mother called. The tornado was not in Ackley. It was in Aplington, just four miles away.

“I got a little more concerned,” Van Hauen said.

She turned on the news. “Take cover immediately,” the anchor said.

She grabbed her puppy Bandit and headed down into her basement, but because her basement was “really cold down there” she came back up to grab a blanket, chair, and a soda. When she was on her way back down into the basement, the siren went off. 6-foot-4-inch Van Hauen sat huddled beneath the stairs and placed Bandit on her lap.

“I still didn’t think very much of it because you never think it will actually happen,” Van Hauen said. She called her father but told him everything was fine.

Then she heard fire truck sirens going by her house, and the electricity flicked off.

“I got scared,” Van Hauen said. She saw a black cloud heading for the window.
The tornado hit the ground at 4:56 p.m.

“As soon as the tornado hit I smelled dirt from the fields,” she said.

Sitting under the basement stairs, talking to her father on the phone, Van Hauen heard her roof tearing off and began screaming that the tornado had hit her house. Her dad was already on his way. He handed the phone to her mother.

“I kept saying that the tornado was taking my house and then I didn’t hear her anymore,” Van Hauen said. “I was having a hard time of keeping the phone by my ear and hanging on to Bandit. He was running around in circles on my lap.”

Van Hauen said she wasn’t sure when it was safe to come up from the basement; “It sounded like it was gone and then swirled back around.” Finally, she decided to go up.

“It was dark in the basement, but I thought that I probably just lost some of the roof,” she said.

While walking up the basement stairs, Van Hauen noticed debris on them. Wearing flip-flops, she had to look down to watch where she was walking. When she reached the top of the stairs, she saw that her car was sitting where the garage used to be. The garage was completely gone.

After finally leaving the basement, Van Hauen entered the first floor of her house.

“As I turned to my right, I saw the utter devastation and disaster,” she said. “My kitchen wall was gone and I could see the neighbors and street behind me. The block was completely leveled. Not even a wall was left standing.”

After repeatedly trying to contact her family though various phone calls and voicemails, Van Hauen finally received a phone call from her sister and was told she was on her way with her boyfriend and his family. After that, Van Hauen couldn’t get a signal on her phone.

She then went to check on her neighbors and made sure they were OK. Her father, mother, grandma, and sister arrived and together they began the quest to salvage everything they could. They didn’t really have time to cry, she said.

“We heard about the tornado, but that’s all we knew,” her cousin Michael Paterni said. “We decided to see what was going on. It was kind of shocking. We didn’t realize it was that bad.”

Paterni and his family arrived to help.

“‘Welcome to hell’” was Van Hauen’s greeting, Paterni recalled.

Although Van Hauen can’t remember the comment, she said it would certainly describe the scene.

While Van Hauen’s big family were working to salvage her items, it down-poured and hailed twice on them; but they all stayed to help her clean up.

“Those hours are kind of blurry,” she said.

Later that night at her parents’ home, the ordeal caught up with her.

“I lost it,” Van Hauen said. She cried for half an hour.
After a night with nearly no sleep and hours spent doing laundry, Van Hauen was able to go back to her house in Parkersburg to finish going through her belongings.

“We spent most of the day there going through everything,” she said. “I got in touch with my insurance agency and they came around lunch time. I got my claim settled and a check on the spot.”

The check was enough to pay off her mortgage on her house and her home repair loan. It allowed her to make a down payment on her new car and house in Cedar Falls. It was a relief for her because she knew then that she could start over again, without any debt, she said. She sold her house lot to neighbors, who now use it as a yard.

A week after the tornado, she even brought supplies to donate to other victims at Aplington Middle School with her mom.

Losing a sense of her independence, Tracie received help from other people. About 40 people from Wellsburg came to Parkersburg to help tear down Tracie’s house the Saturday after the tornado; and Tracie received cards, gifts, and money from family, friends, and strangers. She said at first she didn’t want to take their money.

“I had to learn how to ask and accept help,” she said. “But I knew I needed it. I didn’t know where to start.”

Right after the tornado, Van Hauen said it was hard to make decisions and to commit, and her usual enjoyment of storms diminished.

“Now whenever it rains, I get scared. I hate thunder and wind,” she said. “Even this winter, when it’s very windy outside, the noise freaks me out and I have to remind myself that a tornado won’t happen.”

When the thunder rattles the windows, her heart beats faster. Every time it rains, she thinks of tornados. Sometimes her friends and coworkers will laugh about it, but Van Hauen can’t help it, she said.

“I have to remind myself to take a couple deep breaths,” she said. “I tell myself not to worry because it’s fine.”

Van Hauen is getting closer to becoming her normal self again. Although she was on sleeping pills after the tornado, a flight to Orlando, Fla., in August on a work trip helped her get over it.

“It was good to get out,” she said. “The trip helped decompress it.”

Unlike her father who is just now getting past the tornado’s effects, Van Hauen has never had a problem talking about it.

“It’s just something that I have to learn to live with and work through,” she said. “Each time I talk about it, it seems to get easier.”

Van Hauen said her father, Dale, is still too upset about the tornado to talk about it, but he is getting better. Always a builder, he worked hard renovating her Parkersburg home before the tornado.

“He probably spent more hours fixing my house than I did,” she said.

Dale was the first one to arrive after the tornado struck his daughter’s house, and it hurt him a lot, she said. He swore never to build again.

“But these last few months, he’s been getting back in his workshop,” she said. “He’s making stuff for the baby.”

Her sister Sara had a baby, Caden Dale, in early February, and Tracie has been very involved with him. Every weekend since his birth, Tracie visits her sister and her newborn baby, and they continue to hold phone conversations several times a day, she said.

“I am as involved as I can be, living 30 miles away,” she said, noting that she buys things all the time for Caden, who she says has her sister’s nose and their father Dale’s dark hair.

Van Hauen visited Parkersburg earlier this year and was surprised to see that there are “quite a bit of houses” back up, she said.

She’s busy renovating her 1960s style home in Cedar Falls, though she has no plans to completely “gut” the home as she did in Parkersburg. She purchased it in mid-August.

“I’ve spent a lot of time painting and shopping [for the new house]”, she said. One of the main goals she would like to accomplish this year is to “get this house and yard done.” Van Hauen just wants to be done so she can come home, relax, and spend time with her family, she said.

She chose Cedar Falls because it’s closer to her work, and after her check she could afford to live there. She didn’t have to worry about rebuilding in Parkersburg.

Although Van Hauen is not sure of any plans to visit Parkersburg on the anniversary of the tornado, she knows it will probably be a difficult day. But she has encouraging words for others dealing with natural disasters.

“It’ll make you stronger,” she said. “Just know that you’ll get through it.”

At her old address of 918 Highway 57, there now lie three planted trees.

“I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately, because a year ago I [bought] the house in [Parkersburg],” she said. “It’s not something I consciously think about but one second can bring it all back in an instant.”

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