COUNCIL BLUFFS — It was supposed to be Dannette Eveloff’s day off.
July 15, 1988, was a Friday, and Eveloff was happy to be at home with her children instead of working a nursing shift in Jennie Edmundson Hospital’s emergency room. Fridays were always busy.
That Friday turned out to be busier than any she’d worked before: Tornadoes tore through Council Bluffs shortly after 4 p.m., with the storm bringing 15 minutes of fury to a surprised city.
“It happened so quickly,” said Tom Hanafan, who was in his seventh month of what would become a 25-year run as mayor of Council Bluffs.
The storm rolled through Omaha, crossing the Missouri River at the Interstate 480 bridge. Brian Smith, the warning coordination meteorologist and the “tornado guy” with the National Weather Service in Valley, said one of the tornadoes that hit Council Bluffs started around the river before heading east.
Warning sirens sounded in Council Bluffs at 4:13 p.m. At least three funnels hit the city, each leaving its own path of destruction in the west end.
Businesses along West Broadway were the first to be hit, with Grease Monkey among those sustaining significant damage. Pete Krause, then-owner of Grease Monkey, said he remembers the power going off. Five employees, two adult customers and a few children took refuge in the shop’s basement.
“I had just about all my customers downstairs,” he said. “I wanted to make sure I had everyone down there before I went down. I got about halfway down the steps, and the roof left. Then the sirens went off.”
The Superior Honda dealership, then located at 35th and West Broadway, reported more than $1 million in damage to vehicles.
Residential areas were hit next, with the storm uprooting trees, tearing off roofs and downing power lines.
The winds blew a 40-car Union Pacific freight train off the tracks, according to Smith.
Lisa Pebley was on her way home from a movie with her 5-year-old daughter, 2-year-old son and daughter’s friend in tow, when she reached the top of the viaduct and saw “the black wall cloud coming down Broadway.”
“My first thought, ‘We’re going to die,’ ” she said.
Pebley and crew were able to make it to her in-laws’ home at 19th Street and Avenue B and rode out the storm in the living room.
Smith said Weather Service records show three tornadoes hit Council Bluffs that day: an F3, F2 and F1 on the Fujita scale, which rates tornadoes based on damage to vegetation and man-made structures. (The slightly altered Enhanced Fujita scale was adopted in 2007.)
An F3 tornado has wind speeds in the range of 135 to 165 mph, Smith said.
The tornadoes destroyed 18 homes and three mobile homes, while 117 homes, four apartment buildings and one mobile home sustained major damage; and four mobile homes and 17 apartment buildings had minor damage, according to the weather service and past reporting from the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil.
“The damage wasn’t widespread (in Council Bluffs), but where it did hit, it was severe,” said Council Bluffs Public Works Director Greg Reeder, then the city engineer. “It happened so fast.”
No one died in the storm. The most significant injury reported in the aftermath: Jimmy Fitch, then 55 and living in the 700 block of Graham Avenue, suffered serious head injuries in a five-vehicle accident on I-80 during the storm.
The storm lifted Fitch’s vehicle 15 to 18 inches off the road and carried it sideways down the Interstate, slamming it into a car parked along the roadside, and spun it across the median, where it entered the opposite lane. An oncoming car hit the vehicle.
“It was terrible,” Fitch told the Nonpareil a year after the tornado, noting a battle with brain injuries since the crash.
Though July 15 was Eveloff’s day off, she knew where she needed to be after the storm. When the longtime nurse arrived at Jennie Edmundson Hospital, she “knew Council Bluffs was in trouble.”
“I saw the manager of human resources (Jim Friel) rushing people into the ER from their cars,” she recalled.
With power out across the city and 911 communication cut off, ambulances often couldn’t be dispatched.
“People’s cars became the ambulances. Car after car just kept coming into the parking lot with injured people and people having chest pains or shortness of breath,” said Eveloff, now a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner and nursing faculty member at Creighton University. “People helping people. Neighbors helping neighbors. People bringing in their families and friends.”
At least 83 people sought medical attention in the aftermath of the storm, in addition to those who treated cuts, scratches and bruises themselves.
The power outage also hampered the hospital, Eveloff said.
“Medicine that was supposed to be refrigerated couldn’t be kept cool. We were worried about people with COPD and heart conditions and if their oxygen tanks and respirators would work. Dehydration was a concern for people working in the heat that day but also for several days to come in (for) cleanup,” she said. “We were also worried about electrocutions from downed power lines, lacerations from chainsaws and people eating food that wasn’t properly refrigerated as it couldn’t be kept cool. Our work didn’t end that day but went on for days and weeks afterwards as we cared for those affected by the storm and those assisting with the cleanup.”
Power was out for about a week in some of the hardest-hit areas of Council Bluffs. About 25,000 customers in all were without power in the immediate aftermath, a spokesman for the Iowa Power & Light Company said in the days after the tornado.
With Hanafan’s power out and so much work to be done, the mayor spent the first three nights after the storm in the courthouse basement.
Alaina Lamphear, who was 3 at the time, said her family cooked on the grill because the power was out at their home on 24th Street and Fourth Avenue.
“And the neighbors who didn’t have a grill were coming over and using it. (There was a) sense of camaraderie we started to feel within the neighborhood as we all pooled our resources since they were sparse for things like coolers, charcoal, water, ice, candles, etc. (We were) really helping each other out,” she said. “This is one of the first vivid memories I really have, and I think back on it quite a bit.”
The idea of people helping people, the community coming together, is a common theme when people discuss the 1988 tornadoes in Council Bluffs.
“The response was incredible,” Hanafan said.
That response started immediately, with Council Bluffs and Pottawattamie County officials gathering at the county Emergency Management Department in the basement of the courthouse. Then-Gov. Terry Branstad toured the damage the following Sunday. Federal officials came to the city and task forces were formed. The City of Omaha sent crews to assist, while towns such as Treynor provided medical and other assistance.
The Red Cross and Salvation Army sprang into action as well.
“Everybody did their job,” Hanafan said of the hundreds of people who helped, all while enduring the July heat. “And they worked their tails off.”
Dump sites were designated for the debris. Hanafan said farmers brought in equipment to help clear the destruction. The National Guard helped patrol areas with outages to protect against looting.
Reports in the aftermath put damage to insured property at $27 million in the Council Bluffs area, with another $16 million in damage to uninsured property, for a total of $43 million.
July 15, 1988, was a Friday that’ll be seared in the minds of Council Bluffs residents for years to come.
“I can still remember it very vividly,” Hanafan said. “It was a difficult time. But we got through it.”