'Dented, but not broken'

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The top level of the building that housed INKspiration Tattoo was completely obliterated, as was much of the level below it, which was INKspiration owner Crystal Scarff’s apartment. Scarff was working in the tattoo shop at the time the tornado hit, but no one was injured.

The Main Street Mall Antiques building, once the Goedert Meat Market, collapsed as a result of the EF-1 tornado that swept through McGregor on July 19.

McGregor’s Main Street was hardest hit by the tornado. Countless trees were down and many buildings and homes were severely damaged or destroyed.

This large tree toppled onto the Lamp Post Inn and Gallery.

Cannon Park (shown here) and Gazebo Park lost several trees between the two.

McGregor’s city hall had noticeable damage to its roof. One of the columns framing the front door fell atop a car next door.

The tornado left behind mangled trees and damaged homes and buildings at the corner of A and Ann Streets.

The iconic tooth from Jim Arvidson’s dental office hung precariously following the tornado.

McGregor Pharmacy owner Dennis Alcorn (right) and Larry Brummel (left, middle), the former pharmacist who still owns the building, were among those who examined the pharmacy’s iconic mortar and pestle last Thursday morning, the day after an EF-1 tornado tore through McGregor.

This graphic from the National Weather Service’s La Crosse office shows the EF-1 tornado’s path, from Highway 18, through McGregor, to the riverfront.

McGregor recovering from strong EF-1 tornado

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

It was something mayor Harold Brooks admitted he’d never seen the likes of in his 50 years of living in McGregor—something many residents said they never thought could happen. 

A tornado.

Yet, just after 6:15 p.m., on Wednesday, July 19, that’s exactly what occurred, as an upper-end EF-1 tornado, with winds of 110 miles per hour, ripped through the historic river community. No one was injured, but the twister left a path of destruction in fallen trees and damaged or destroyed homes and buildings that will forever be felt in McGregor.

— — —

The National Weather Service’s La Crosse office began monitoring the storm system earlier in the day, noting its potential for severe thunderstorms and hazardous winds.

Earlier that evening, as it moved over towns like Clermont and Fort Atkinson, the system began to show signs of rotation, said Todd Shea, warning and coordination meteorologist.

“Based on what we can tell, the tornado started to develop a couple miles west of town, not too far from Highway 18,” Shea detailed. “It intensified as it dropped into the valley, into McGregor.”

For those in McGregor, the storm’s onset—and strength—was unexpected.

“It hit so fast,” said Jane Lundquist, children’s librarian at the McGregor Public Library, located on Main Street. Watching the storm approach from the library doorway, she said she struggled to close  the door as the wind and rain escalated.

Next door, at INKspiration Tattoo, where owner Crystal Scarff was in the middle of a tattoo session, patrons also stood outside, watching the storm approach. Seeing what was headed toward them, they yelled for everyone to get inside and to the basement, she recalled.

Down Main Street, people—including some who’d just escaped off the Mississippi River—sought refuge in businesses like Pocket City Pub and Latinos Mexican Restaurant.

“People almost got sucked into the street, but they fought their way inside and yelled ‘Get away from the windows! It’s here!’” shared Sarah Davis, who works at Latinos. “It was terrifying for everyone.”

From their home on Ann Street, Teri Burg said she and her husband, John, saw first shingles, then pieces of buildings and homes, scuttle past, before seeking cover in their basement.

Back at the library, Lundquist watched as trees cracked and fell to the ground.

On Spring Street, where Lucy Anderson lives with her husband, Al, trees also split. Wind diverted the rain from its downward trajectory.

“I’ve never seen water go uphill before,” she said.

Through town, countless trees toppled to the ground or onto structures and power lines, windows shattered, roofs and siding ripped free of their buildings, with pieces swept down the street, even into other buildings. 

At the McGregor Pharmacy, the iconic mortar and pestle fell, hanging precariously just above the ground. A portion of the back of the building was torn off.

The top level of the INKspiration building was obliterated, its bricks deposited in heaps atop vehicles parked beside and in front of the building. A gaping expanse was also left in the level below, which served as Scarff’s home. Amazingly, posters remained moored to the apartment walls and a lamp stood upright, its white shade marking a stark contrast against the darkness.

Next door, the Main Street Mall Antiques building collapsed, its top level resting where the ground floor had once been.

Afterward, as people ventured outside into the bleak grayness and falling rain, they were met with an eerie picture.

“It was quite the scene, to see all the tree limbs down in Triangle Park,” said Katie Ruff, the owner of By the Spoonful, who’d been in a meeting at the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce. It was scary, she said, to see the sign from Creative Enz Salon, located a block up the street, deposited near the park.

Jen White, who owns Paper Moon with her mother, Louise, and lives above the store, found a piece of the damaged Barron Building, from a block away, in her apartment.

“It’s just devastating,” remarked Maria Brummel. As head of the McGregor Park Board, seeing the number of trees down or damaged in the city’s parks was especially hard to bear, she said.

City administrator Lynette Sander said Artesian Park, located behind the library, was hardest hit. Three or four trees were lost between Cannon and Gazebo Parks, near St. Mary’s Catholic Church, as well as another three on the riverfront.

Sander said McGregor arborist Dan Keyes, with Keyes Tree Service, plans to inspect the trees in Triangle Park.

“He thinks he can save them,” she said.

Of those that were lost, said Brummel, “It’ll take 50, 100 years to replace them.”

“I have not seen anything like this,” Anderson said as she surveyed the town, “nothing like the damage of this.”

Brooks said Main Street was the hardest hit. In fact, as buildings were assessed after the tornado, the community began discovering there were hardly any businesses that weren’t damaged in some way, he noted.

Even some of the homes, he said, seemed fine, but were found to have cracked rafters.

“You just don’t know until you look,” he said.

Although classified an EF-1 tornado, Shea, the meteorologist, said it was a borderline EF-2.

“It was a pretty strong tornado,” he said, which dissipated as it crossed the river, into Prairie du Chien. “With the steep terrain, it was surprising it could hold together. That’s a little rare.”

Brooks, along with others in McGregor, even speculate more than one tornado hit the community.

— — —

Immediately following the tornado, both law enforcement and residents went door-to-door, assuring no one was trapped or injured.

Crews barred access to buildings that had fallen or threatened to drop debris.

Two large trees that blocked Main Street, one near By the Spoonful and the other by the Carriage House Apartments, were quickly cleared. 

Other debris was cleared, and roads were opened, as it became safe to do so.

Brandon Jones, McGregor District Manager of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, said some people were trapped on the river during the storm, although an exact number is unknown.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service performed searches Wednesday night,” he said. “Thankfully, no rescues were initiated.”

Canadian Pacific Railroad had some trees down on the right-of-way following the tornado, but the engineering team was able to remove them during the Wednesday/Thursday overnight hours, said public affairs official Andy Cummings.

McGregor Municipal Utilities began work to restore power to the town right away. By Saturday, with the help of at least half a dozen other utility companies, most of the community, barring the area hardest hit near the middle of Main Street, had power.

“I’d say we’re at 98 percent power now,” said Brooks on Monday.

In addition to McGregor Hook and Ladder, outside fire departments and tree removal companies also helped in the clean-up efforts.

People like Joyce and Lowell Siegele, who came from out of town to rake Triangle Park, were also a big help, Brooks said.

In a situation like this, he continued, McGregor really missed the workers from Luster Heights. Inmates from the facility had regularly worked for the city until this winter, when state budget cuts forced Luster Heights’ closure.

“With the guys we had, they knew the layout of town,” Brooks explained. “They could’ve taken a crew with them and freed up the other city guys.”

Brooks said he was proud of how quickly clean-up and utility restoration occurred. He’d rather not have to practice it again, though.

“It’s a hell of a way to have to learn how to do something,” he commented.

— — —

Support came in other forms, as well. St. Mary’s Catholic Church, powered by a large generator from C.J. Moyna, offered shelter, air conditioning, food and water for residents and volunteers.

Dozens of volunteers worked for several days, making, serving and delivering food, said Meaghan Schneider, who helped organize the efforts.

“The crews and volunteers would not stop working,” she said, “so we took water and food out to them.”

McGregor residents who lived on Eagle Drive and had power, explained Schneider, even came to the church and picked up some hot dogs, took them home and grilled them, when the church volunteers had no way to cook them.

Local businesses and restaurants, along with individuals, brought water and food.

“Donations were coming from everywhere. I had people calling and asking, ‘What do you need, what can we bring?’” Schneider said. “I was amazed by the number of people who showed up. A guy from two hours away brought cases of water.”

Help also came from the Salvation Army, which provided food for residents, first responders and volunteers.

Both the Marquette Community Center and the Great River Care Center (running on a generator) were opened to those seeking relief from the heat or needing a charging station. 

 The support was not surprising, said Brooks.

“What’s great about McGregor is that the community comes together,” he said. “People help out any way they can, when they can. Strangers become friends. It’s amazing.”

— — —

The city of McGregor said there is no estimate yet of the total damage to the community, or even the city’s property.

For many, the real pain comes in the loss of and damage to some of the community’s historic buildings.

Main Street Mall, once the Goedert Meat Market, was built as a reproduction of a New York meat market. Around 1890, John Goedert placed the elegant, pressed metal storefront on the brick edition to a much earlier building.

Edward Bergman and his brother purchased the building in 1927, running it as a delicatessen and meat market for many years.

John Corlett bought the building in 1944, opening an antique and second-hand store called Trash and Treasures.

“Many times I sat in that building and played checkers with him,” recalled resident Jeff Corlett, who was John’s grandson. The building’s loss, he said, “is a terrible thing.”

Skip and Barbara Corson have owned the building since 1981, operating it as the Main Street Mall. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1996.

“[Barbara and Skip] took great care in preserving this beautiful historical building and in sharing it with others through their antique mall for over 31 years,” shared Deb (DJ) Corson, the couple’s daughter-in-law. She said her thoughts are with her in-laws and the dealers who lost their items.

The building that housed INKspiration Tattoo served, for many years, as a grocery store, including Bickel Meat and Grocery from 1912 to 1955. In the early 1970s, Terrance Ghan, along with Guy and Joyce Ghan, restored the building and opened it as a restaurant called The Village Traveler. In the years since, it’s served as a woodworking studio, the first location of the McGregor-Marquette Center for the Arts and a dollar store. INKspiration opened in 2015.

A crew from Clayton County Recycling began tearing down the building Saturday. Anderson, a McGregor historian, was visibly emotional at the sight.

“You can never replace these, you can’t replace the history,” she said. “All these beautiful buildings meant so much to McGregor.”

Anderson said she knows McGregor will get through it, though.

“There are good people here,” she affirmed, “and they care enough that they’ll do whatever they can to get it back.”

Duane Boelman, the city’s deputy clerk and economic development lead, said he’s met with other downtown building owners whose buildings also sustained varying degrees of damage. While some are still learning the exact extent of damage, everyone is hopeful the buildings can be saved, he said.

People cleaning up, he mentioned, are encouraged to save any architectural pieces of the buildings they find, so the pieces can be returned to the building owners. If someone is unsure which building the piece belongs to, it can be taken to city hall.

— — —

Outside traffic was again allowed into McGregor over the weekend, after being barred immediately following the tornado to allow for a safer and speedier clean-up. Many of McGregor’s businesses also re-opened.

“Hopefully everyone can get going again,” said Kristie Austin, executive director of the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce. “We’ll do everything we can to support these businesses.”

“It’s heartbreaking, but we’ve got a lot to build upon,” she added. “We’re dented, but not broken.”

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