One year later: Restoring McGregor after the tornado

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Laura Nozal’s home at 210 Ann St. was one of the most heavily damaged by the July 19, 2017 tornado. Repairs are now completed, but Nozal said she won’t be planting trees any time soon. (Photos by Audrey Posten)

Northeast Iowa Lions Club volunteers were in McGregor earlier this month to mulch newly-planted trees on private properties.

Tornado-damaged downtown buildings, like the Barron Building, have been restored sensitively, keeping historical integrity in mind.

McGregor City Administrator Lynette Sander and City Clerk Duane Boelman receive a check for the Restore McGregor 2017 Tornado Fund. The lot next to the library, where the INKspiration Tattoo building stood, was donated to the city by Fred Petrie and Melanie San Fillippo shortly after the tornado. Down the road, it may be the location of a community center/library expansion.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Thursday is July 19—a day that marks one year since an EF-1 tornado ripped through McGregor, leaving a path of destruction in fallen trees and damaged or destroyed homes and buildings that will forever be felt in the historic river community.

In the days following the tornado, residents experienced a gamut of emotions: shock, sadness, frustration. But there was also love. Love for their fellow neighbors and for the city.

“People immediately came together. They instinctively knew  what had to be done,” remarked McGregor City Clerk Duane Boelman. “That was encouraging to see. It gave me hope that we could get back together quickly.”

And in McGregor, that’s been the case. Over the past year, people have embarked on a restoration campaign. For months, not a day went by without the whir of a chainsaw clearing debris, the thwacks and clanks of a roof or siding being repaired. New street banners were hung and benches replaced, trees were replanted, businesses reopened and visitors returned, no longer to gawk at the damage, but to enjoy the community’s unique beauty and recreational opportunities.

“With how bad it was,” said city administrator Lynette Sander, “I can’t believe how quickly it transformed.”

“You just keep moving,” explained Maria Brummel, who, with husband Larry, oversaw extensive repairs to the McGregor Pharmacy building they own. “You keep attacking what needs done.”

At city hall, Sander said she was thankful for a disaster team that helped the city deal with its most pressing issues. The insurance company came in right away. Minus some final debris clearing, replacement of the pedestrian bridge over B Street and the installation of new city signs, most tornado-related tasks have been completed.

“Months in, you would see something else that wasn’t noticed before,” she commented. “I hope we’ll be done with everything by October. The city signs are coming soon; those will be our last expenditure.”

The city also oversaw the establishment of a five-member committee that, in October, awarded a total of $36,376.50 from the Restore McGregor 2017 Tornado Fund to 42 different applicants. The fund was started through the Clayton County Foundation for the Future immediately following the July 19 tornado, and had accumulated over $50,000 in contributions from private individuals, businesses/organization donations and fundraisers.

“That gave a little assistance to a lot of people,” said Sander.

On Sunday, some of those funds were utilized to hold a community picnic recognizing the one-year anniversary of the tornado.

“After the tornado, there was a real feeling of community,” Boelman said. “With the picnic, we hoped to feel that again.”

The use of remaining funds, he said, is yet to be determined. 

Another city effort included the creation of a tree board, which has spear-headed efforts to replenish the tree population. Over the past two months, 60 trees have been planted in McGregor, including many in the city parks.

Thanks to a donation from Lions Club International, around 20 of those trees were planted on residential properties on Main and Ann streets, as well as Walton Avenue, where trees were destroyed by the tornado. Lions volunteers came to McGregor earlier this month to help mulch and stake the trees.

“Personally, I’m excited about all the trees that were planted. I really miss those,” said Brummel, who’s on the tree board and also heads up the city’s park board. “We’re planting trees now for our grandchildren.”

Tree planting hasn’t just occurred within city limits. This spring, volunteers helped plant hundreds of oak trees in Pikes Peak State Park, in an area heavily affected by the tornado. Acorns collected from that spot last fall are now being reared in a nursery, for future planting.

Mother Nature, who so quickly changed the city last summer, has played a role, too, covering the ravaged hillsides with vegetation.

“It kind of fades from memory, especially with things leafing out,” remarked Kristie Austin, executive director of the McGregor-Marquette Chamber of Commerce. “To the non-locals, it looks healed.”

The city’s residences, particularly on Main and Ann Streets, have also been freshened up with new roofs, siding, windows and more.

“There were three waves of building improvements. This summer was the last wave of houses,” Sander said. “Those are some positives that came out of the situation.”

One of the homes that received significant repairs was Laura Nozal’s residence at 210 Ann S. Returned home from the hospital just an hour before, Nozal said she sought safety in her laundry room when the tornado hit.

“I heard a crash and knew it was the trees out there,” she said. “The next thing I knew, the policeman was at my door.”

After spending several days with her son at a hotel in Prairie du Chien, Nozal said she first saw her home in the light of day on the Saturday after the Wednesday tornado. Three trees had landed on her home, another on the LP tank in back. Inside was littered with glass and debris.

“I just didn’t believe it,” she said. “How rocks went through the window, if it would have been a normal night with me cooking dinner at the stove, I would have been a goner. The house is over 100 years old, but it withstood it.”

Nozal was able to stay with family in the Twin Cities while much of the repairs were completed. 

“We all had to wait our turn as far as contractors,” she stated.

She made her final payment to her contractor last month. It was around that time, she added, that life finally felt more normal. Tubs that lined her rooms and hallways could finally be emptied, photos and art finally returned to the walls.

“I think things are coming along great,” Nozal said, crediting family, friends and fellow church members for their continual support. “Everyone started helping without me asking.”

But while others on her street have new trees in their yards, Nozal passed on the opportunity.

“After them falling on the house, I want to stay away from trees,” she quipped.

In addition to homes, many downtown businesses also look great, Boelman said. The Barron Building is the only one still being repaired.

“I want to acknowledge that the building owners were conscious of the fact that their buildings should be restored historically. They were sensitive to the repairs,” he said. “That’s a very important thing in McGregor. The historic downtown brings in a lot of people. It’s important that we restore as much as possible. People did a wonderful job.”

“It was very important to us,” Brummel said of the pharmacy building. “It’s easy to do something new, but we didn’t want to lose the unique quality we have.”

One of the pharmacy’s most iconic features—the iconic mortar and pestle that hung above the entrance—is no longer, but Brummel said a new one is currently being created, based off the old design. All the stencil work will be the same.

“We’re excited about having it done and getting it up,” she said. “People always look for it. They miss that landmark.”

Not long after the tornado, Fred Petrie and Melanie San Fillippo donated the lot next to the library, where the INKspiration Tattoo building once stood, to the city. Over the past year, designs have been developed for a potential community center/library expansion in the location. Sander and Boelman are hopeful it will come to fruition some day.

“There will need to be a capital campaign,” Sander said. 

“It’s going to have to be driven by the residents of McGregor,” Boelman added. 

After recovering from a tornado, though, anything seems possible.

“This has proven that people want to be here and want to come here. Our ability to survive is evident,” Austin said. “It gives you resiliency for the future.”

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