50 years later, survivors clearly recall F-5 Oelwein tornado

Image of damage from F-5 tornado that struck Oelwein, IA on May 15th, 1968. (Image Courtesy: The Gazette)

In 1966, CBS2 became the first Iowa station, and just the second in the country, to debut weather radar on television. It was cutting edge at the time but it did little to detail exactly what was going on inside a thunderstorm. In that era, the best line of defense for a community was to send out storm spotters, to give warning if a tornado was headed towards town. On May 15th, 1968, that's exactly what happened in Oelwein. But the tornado formed on the edge of town, providing little if any warning to thousands caught in its path.

Susan Mausser was a sophomore at Oelwein High School in 1968. She stayed late after school to watch a friend rehearsing for an upcoming variety show. In a matter of seconds, her life, and the lives of everyone else in town, would be forever transformed.

"A classmate came running into the gym and I was sitting there and he says there was tornadoes coming." When Susan and her friends ran to the windows outside the gym, they saw a multi-vortex tornado bearing down on the Fayette County town. Immediately, they ran back into the gym to tell everyone to run for shelter. "They scattered, and I got my friend and we were in a small area right by the stage and the door sucked shut we couldn't get any further. Susan says other kids managed to make it to locker rooms to hide from the deadly winds. The sirens managed to sound for just 15 seconds before the tornado cut the power. A short time later, it was all over. Two people were dead in Oelwein, another two killed in nearby Maynard, and dozens of others hurt.

Susan and her friends walked out to a town they had never seen before. "Cars were flipped, the metal posts were all bent, it was just unbelievable how it all changed." Another survivor tells CBS2/FOX28 her loved ones couldn't reach her. The tornado had cut the town in half and made it impossible to get from point A to point B. But they managed to make it to Mercy Hospital, the tallest point in Oelwein, and could see from there that her trailer was still in tact.

All communication with the outside world was gone. No phone lines and no electricity. In the days that followed, the local radio station began announcing the names of citizens who had received telegrams from worried loved ones, so they could pick them up and respond. Ham radio operators also set up shop at the Red Cross Shelter in the basement of a church, allowing survivors to relay work that they were OK.

It took a long time for Oelwein to be Oelwein again, but Susan Mausser says there was a lot of good that came out of it. "There was a lot of tragedy and a lot of devastation and a lot of damage but it was a time where everyone put everything else aside and if anybody needed help there was help." Susan called it Oelwein's new normal. Now, 50 years removed from that terrible night, she shared her memories with her grandchildren, now learning for the first time about their community's brush with disaster.

"When something like that happens it's nice to see that you live in a community that just has one common interest and that's to get everybody back, that you live in an area that has that immediate feeling and we did."

Listen to Susan Mausser's full interview below:

Also check out our coverage of the Charles City tornado in 1968:

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