My favorite photo: Tornado of 2006

Editor’s note: The members of University Relations constantly document the happenings at our fine University, whether they’re clicking away in the classrooms, capturing picturesque moments on campus, or shooting the action at myriad events. On the five-year anniversary of a tornado touchdown in Iowa City, Winston Barclay shares this image and his memories from that event in this installment of the “My favorite photo” series.

Photo by Winston Barclay. (Click to enlarge.)

I lost count of the number of times the tornado sirens wailed the evening of April 13, 2006. But because I am the sort of person who responds to the take-shelter warning as an invitation to go outside and look up, I was in my backyard on the east side of Iowa City when it counted.

To the west, below the sky’s eerie green glow, the flashes of lightning illuminated a cylindrical form moving behind the still-bare tree branches. And when it cleared the trees, the image was right there, until it sucked back up into its roiling cloud almost directly north of my house.

I was so awestruck at witnessing my first tornado. I’ve seen the effects of so many—cornstalks, insulation, and pieces of sheds raining down in our neighborhood, and a trip to Oelwein to help with the cleanup back in the day—that it didn’t immediately occur to me that what I had just viewed without personal consequence must have plowed right through the middle of town.

But word traveled fast. Within minutes, the air was filled with the sounds of multiple sirens. The roof had blown off of St. Patrick’s Church, said the PATV host, who had been pressed into service as a breathless news reporter. The Dairy Queen had been flattened, they said, as was the Cambus barn. Overturned cars littered the streets. And downtown had been seized by a frenzied atmosphere that sometimes surfaces when convention is violently subverted.

Photographers document, so at dawn I drove down and parked just outside the destruction zone, and spent the rest of the day hiking and capturing images on an adrenaline high. Whatever my real work was supposed to have been that day, I didn’t do it. I even forgot to eat.

Approaching from the east, I first saw trees down on College Street—crushing cars, leaning against buildings. In the acute light of a bright, sunny morning, one of the first sights I encountered when I entered the central path was what had been the Alpha Chi Omega sorority house. This image was requested several times for web sites and publications, because it apparently somehow captures—not just to me—the shock of first glimpsing a familiar landscape chaotically rearranged by nature.

The trees were stripped of their branches—a basic tornado signature—and cars had been battered, overturned, and shoved down the hillside. The Tudor façade remained intact, but most of the roof was gone and the east wall had been peeled down to reveal bedframes and mattresses seemingly undisturbed, except that they had been stripped of linens.

We later learned that, as the roof and walls were ripped away, one of the sorority sisters rode out the storm in a phone booth.

Disasters are irresistible to photographers, so there are many sets of photos of the aftermath of the 2006 storm, and even some images of the tornado itself.

Galleries of photos from UI News Services are accessible at Mine are in a set at

Other sites with related images: