PARKERSBURG, Iowa -- Rusty and Julie Eddy were paddling in a canoe when the tornado destroyed their home. The Hoppenworths were fishing, and the Collingses had been invited to a fish fry in the next town over.
Of five families lining one side of Circle Drive in Parkersburg, population 2,200, only Tim Cuvelier saw the mammoth storm cover. Marv Aalderks smelled the scent of evergreen from his basement shelter and knew trees had been freshly ripped from the ground.
"The whole horizon was just spinning," Cuvelier said Monday, surveying the pile of broken wood, mangled cars and a stairway leading to nowhere that once was his home. "The second floor of my house is about 200 yards away in a baseball field."
When the two men emerged from separate homes Sunday, they found houses reduced to rubble and debris strewn for more than a mile in every direction. More than 200 homes had been destroyed and four people had been killed.
Only the holiday weekend and a new tornado siren had kept the death toll from climbing higher, authorities said.
Cuvelier and Aalderks were among dozens of devastated families who spent Monday sifting broken belongings and searching for pictures and other mementos in the wreckage.
"You could hear the nails pull out of the wood," Aalderks said as he pondered what to do with a piano that had survived intact in the basement.
Trail of destruction
All over town, wet mattresses hung from broken tree branches and piles of splintered wood dotted lanes where houses once stood. Homeowners dragged tree stumps with pickup trucks, collected battered clothing and counted themselves among the lucky because no one in their family was killed.
The twister left a track of destruction about a mile wide and more than a mile long, authorities said. Police and firefighters estimated another 400 homes were damaged and 70 people were injured when the twister touched down about 5 p.m. Sunday.
Twenty-one businesses also were damaged, as well as the high school, City Hall and the town's sole grocery store and gas station. New floodlights installed around the high school baseball diamond were destroyed, the dugout had vanished and the bleachers were gone.
Two additional people were killed outside the neighboring town of New Hartford, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
Iowa Gov. Chet Culver visited the destruction Monday, promising aid.
"You really are overwhelmed when you see it," Culver said at a news conference. "You can't imagine this kind of devastation, homes completely gone. And to see people trying to sort through their belongings is very difficult."
'It was the worst hour'
Memorial Day saved some residents from the storm, but not the fright. The Eddys got a call on their cell phone while canoeing in a nearby river. A voice said their house had been destroyed. Then the line went dead.
They spent a frantic hour -- abandoning their boat in the river and hitching a ride to their car -- to get home, where Julie Eddy's parents were watching the couple's small children.
They got home to discover their four-bedroom, three-bath home had been razed, but everyone was safe.
"It was the worst hour," Julie Eddy said.
Like the Eddys, the Hoppenworths were out of town for Memorial Day when the twister touched down. GaylaHoppenworth had been fishing in Minnesota with her husband and mother when she received a phone call from her adult son, Klay. He told her that not only was her house gone but so was her mother's house -- the one without a basement.
"She always stayed behind," Hoppenworth said of her mother, who in years past opted to forgo their annual Memorial Day trip to put flowers on her husband's grave instead. "This year she said, 'I think your dad is saying, life is for the living.' So she came with us."
On Monday she viewed the pile of cracked two-by-fours that lay next to an antique chest salvaged from the basement.
"It's like a bomb went off," Hoppenworth said as she carted furniture to a van. "We're fortunate we still have some belongings to go through."
Pondering next move
By Monday, the Red Cross had set up food and water stations at a local veterans building and an elementary school. There were no immediate plans for high school students who had a week left before summer vacation.
Stunned residents were left to ponder their next move. Most had found friends or family to stay with. Some were contemplating rebuilding, but not Betty Collings, a grandmother whose house was destroyed.
She and her husband had missed the storm because her daughter invited them over for a fish fry an hour before the tornado hit, she said. She returned to find a slab of concrete where her house once stood and broken trees all over the yard.
She managed to salvage some old photos, as well as her husband's World War II memorabilia. But Collings wasn't sure they would rebuild.
Neither was Cuvelier, who stood in disbelief as he surveyed the ruins of his home.
"I'm numb to it," he said. "I'm ready to say let's bulldoze it and move on."