The Audubon-Exira-Hamlin Flood of 1958

 

   Flash floods are some of the most devastating natural disasters in the world. They can come without warning, destroying everything in their path. Iowa is no stranger to them. Although there have been many throughout the years, one still stands out in the minds of Southwest Iowa residents.

Perpetual Rain

      It began to rain on July 2nd, 1958. Thunderstorms blossomed across the landscape, violent and angry. Lightning flashed, and thunder boomed.

   Several of these storms were very slow moving, and lingered in the area longer than usual. To make matters worse, strong winds kept them in place for even longer, allowing them to pour tremendous amounts of water down on western Iowa.  Once the ground reached its saturation point, there was nowhere else for all that water to go.

   Low spots in the ground quickly filled. Puddles became ponds, and ponds became lakes. Water seeks to naturally level itself out, and a large volume of water is very heavy. Depending on the landscape, that weight can cause the water to flow very quickly, giving the water powerful momentum.

   In southwest Iowa, streams and creeks began to swell, reaching their crest as they began to enter the larger Nishnabotna River. The volume of water that already naturally found its way downstream multiplied, and the river soon reached its own crest and overflowed its banks. Soon, the water began to pick up speed, slamming across the landscape.

      Word about the rising flood waters spread quickly. In Exira, a night watchman named Claude Greene began to sound the fire alarm in effort to warn residents. In the low-lying areas of the Nishnabotna, fireman ran from door to door, waking and warning as many residents as they could.

   The flood was coming.

Trapped by the Water

   Jerry Lauritsen was only eighteen years old in 1958. The 4th of July holiday was only two days away, and they could almost feel the excitement in the air. He and three of his friends had spent the day in Atlantic, Iowa, and were now travelling back home to Audubon, almost thirty miles to the north.

   Night had fallen, and Jerry watched the slow ribbon of concrete stretch out before him in the soft glow of his headlights. As they approached Brayton, he knew they weren’t that far away from home. Rain began to fall then, heavy and hard. Jerry had driven through rain before, so he wasn’t concerned. He turned on the wipers, slowed his speed, and stared hard through the thick sheets of rain at the road.

   Just on the other side of town, Jerry’s car cut out. He got the vehicle started again, and kept going. This process was repeated and again as the group of friends drove haltingly through the blinding rain toward Audubon.

   As they approached an intersection a few miles south of Audubon, the car ahead of them stopped. Without warning, it was wrenched sideways across the road, blocking the way through. Deep water was rushing across the highway, deep enough to reach the floorboards of their car and soak their feet.

   The car vibrated as something slammed against it outside. Scared now, the boys looked out the window just in time to see a large tree branch float away, borne by the rushing torrent of water. They were caught in the tide, and there was nowhere to go.

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   In Exira, Lee Thompson sat up in bed. Sound asleep, he had been awoken by the town fire alarm. Curious, he got up and looked out of his bedroom window. To his utter amazement, a bridge was floating across his driveway!

   Without thinking, he woke up his wife, then grabbed his two children, one under each arm. They couldn’t stay in the house. They had to get out and away from the flood. He opened the front door and waded out into the water.

 

   Elsewhere in Exira, Russell Smith was sitting at home when he heard a loud popping sound. To him, it sounded almost as if something had exploded. He got up from his chair and went to investigate. Suddenly, he began to shout to his wife Elsie and their 19-year-old son, Jim, that the house was filling with water.

   Russell grabbed their little dog and they all went out into the front yard. The water was already rising higher. Russell and Elsie climbed onto one of the family cars, while Jim, a former high school athlete, ran to a neighbor’s tree and climbed as high and as fast as he could.

   To their dismay, the car they were standing on began to sink. Unable to withstand the force of the water, the Smiths were knocked off the car and into the flood. For one split second, Elsie saw Jim staring in horror before she went under the water.

Washed Away

   Back on the highway south of Audubon, Jerry and his friends watched the water streaming past the car. One of them, Darwin Kuntzweiler, was terrified. He couldn’t swim, and didn’t want to get swept away.

   Ahead of them, two men got out of the car blocking the road. The boys recognized them as the Wiges brothers, Harry and Frank. They both lived locally, and the boys knew them. Frank was custodian of the city auditorium in Audubon, and Harry ran a grocery store.

    As they watched, the men braced themselves against the racing water and began wading toward a gas station a few hundred yards away. Darwin got out of the car and waded through the water to walk with the brothers.

   Jerry and his other two friends knew that they couldn’t wait in the car. Together, they exited the vehicle and prepared to follow their friends. They grabbed on tight to one another and began to move through the water toward the gas station.

   Making headway was almost impossible. The flowing water kept trying to knock their feet out from underneath them, and they constantly fought to maintain their balance.

   Suddenly, the water began to turn Jerry. As he tried to adjust, he felt his feet slip out from underneath him. Jerry instinctually tried to hold tighter to his friends, but it was too late. Almost before he knew what was happening, he was torn away from them and ripped downstream.

 

   Outside of his home in Exira, Lee Thompson waded through chest high flood water with a child under each arm. His wife clung to him, trying her best to maintain her balance as the rushing water threatened to sweep her away.

   The Thompsons lived next to a service station, and there was a large gravel truck parked outside. Lee tried to make his way toward that when he saw another semi closer to him. He could see the driver inside, and immediately took a gamble.

   Summoning his strength, Lee moved to the semi and handed his children to the driver. Next, he helped his wife get in. The driver, who had pulled over for a nap and had been caught unaware by the flood, started his semi and used the large vehicle to power his way through the water and to higher ground. As he saw them leave, Lee hoped that the driver could get his wife and children out of the water and on to safety.

   Satisfied that he had given his family at least a fighting chance, Lee now turned his attention to his own survival. He made his way to the gravel truck, where almost a dozen other people clung to the side, including several children.

 

   In the water, Elsie Smith had been able to grab onto a tree branch. She was at the mercy of the flood, swept along by the rushing tide. Elsie struggled to get her head above the water. Finally, she did, sucking in great breaths of air.

   When a larger branch came floating by, Elsie let go of the branch she had and grabbed on to it. Several more times, she was pushed under water and fought to rise above the surface. She clung to the log she was on with all her strength.

   At one point, Elsie was snagged on a barbed wire fence. She struggled and eventually tear away, but not without a fight. Somehow, she had maintained her grip on her log. Free of the fence now, continued floating down the river, still clinging to her makeshift life raft.

 

   Jerry Lauritsen was being pulled along with the powerful flood tide. Desperately, he tried his best to swim along with the current. Suddenly, he felt something bump against him. It was a log!

   He climbed on top of it and rode it downstream for nearly a mile. It drifted into a group of trees that were tall enough to stand out of the water.

   Sensing an opportunity, Jerry climbed one of the nearest trees as high as he could, far out of the flood water. Terrified, he clung fiercely to his perch and waited for his ordeal to come to an end.

 

   Lee Thompson and several others held onto the side of a gravel truck parked at a local service station. The adults took the children in the group and held them up out of the water as high as they could. Deep water buffeted them, threatening to tear them from their refuge.

   Over the next several hours, Thompson and the others used a rake to keep flood debris from collecting around the truck. They were afraid that if enough of it accumulated, then the gravel truck would be tipped over and throw them off into the water.

Rescue

   Finally, morning came. The angry waters began to recede, and rescuers could get to stranded victims.

   Lee Thompson and his companions were among them. They had clung to the gravel truck for nearly six hours, with only the light of dim flashlights and flashes of lightning to see by. The entire time, Lee didn’t know if his family had survived or not. To his tremendous relief, they had. They were happily reunited later.

 

   When dawn broke, Jerry Lauritsen began to call for help. To both his surprise and his relief, he heard two others answering from nearby, stranded in their own trees. Soon, they were all rescued by a group of volunteers and policeman in a boat who saw them while searching for survivors.

   All three of Jerry’s friends, as well as the two Wiges brothers, had drowned in the flood. He was the only one of the small group stranded on the highway that night to survive.

 

   Elsie Smith floated down the river on her log, praying. She was picked up by rescuers almost fifty miles downstream.

   She was taken to a hospital in Atlantic, Iowa, where she was reunited with her son, Jim, who had also survived, safe in the neighbor’s tree. Unfortunately, her husband Russell, who had warned them of the rising water, had died.

Aftermath

   Altogether, 19 people had met their end in the flooding around the Audubon-Exira-Hamlin area. Bridges had been washed away, as well as parts of roads. Thousands of various kinds of livestock had been killed.

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   Almost all the homes in Exira had been washed off their foundations, and crops throughout the region were ruined. Cars were strewn everywhere, water-logged and covered in debris.

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   The damage estimates quickly ran into the millions.

   Over 12 inches of rain had fallen virtually overnight on southwest Iowa.

   But, through it all, the towns and their people persevered. They buried their loved ones, mourned their losses, and began to clean up. Soon enough, homes were rebuilt and crops replanted. Livestock was replaced and roads repaired.

   By the following year, life had mostly returned to its normal pace.

   But the events of that night had left scars upon the land and its residents. When the lightning flashed and the rain began to fall, there were some who felt a twinge in the back of their minds, and they remembered the flood waters that had scoured the land and taken so many lives.

 

   You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please check in every week or so for brand new true stories of triumph, tragedy, and everything in-between. If you want to make it easier on yourself, you can subscribe to John’s blog and have new entries sent directly to your inbox, or you can ‘Like’ the Kitchen Table Historian Facebook page, and receive them in your news feed.

   Thank you for stopping by, and we look forward to seeing you at the table! 

 

Sources 

9 Dead, Several Missing in Flood.” Carroll Daily Times Herald, July 2, 1958.

Barton, Terry. “Iowa Flood Damage is ‘Fantastic.’” Daily Times, July 2, 1958.

12-Inch Rain, 10 Iowans Die.” Daily Times, July 2, 1958.

Mills, George. “’Lord, Save Me,’ Prayed Mother in Raging River.” Des Moines Register, July 3, 1958.

Lamberto, Nick. “River Tears Land, Spills Death, Ruin.” Des Moines Register, July 3, 1958.

How 3 Boys Met Death in Angry Water.” Des Moines Register, July 3, 1958.

Madson, John. “Homes Float Away, Hunt for Bodies.” Des Moines Register, July 3, 1958.

A Night of Terror in Flood.” Des Moines Register, July 3, 1958.

 

38 thoughts on “The Audubon-Exira-Hamlin Flood of 1958

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  1. This probably won’t come as a surprise, but I like your death and disaster posts most of all! Judging by the pictures, it’s surprising that only 19 people were killed…it looks like it could have been a lot worse! Flash floods are scary stuff.

    1. I’m not surprised at all, Jessica. You and I seem to have similar interests in that regard. I’d never heard of this flood until one of my readers brought it to my attention. In my part of Iowa, floods usually just rise and soak a bunch of stuff. We have fast moving water that’s dangerous to wade into, but nothing like what happened in Exira! I’d never heard of a flood like this in Iowa. It was almost like one of those disaster films. I’m still in disbelief about it.

  2. Only by the Grace of God were my parents able to get us 6 kids to safety. We survived but lost our home on that terrible night.

    1. And I’m very glad that you survived. That was a terrible night, and I can only imagine what it must have been like for your parents facing down those waters with six kids. Homes can be rebuilt, but children can never be replaced.

    2. My dad Myron Akers was one in back of the gravel truck, he was terrified of water. He didn’t talk about it much.

      1. I read about some of things that your father experienced that night, Monte. Honestly, I’d be terrified of water, too, after all that. He and the other adults on that truck worked a miracle keeping those kids alive, sir. He has my utmost respect.

  3. Fascinating personal stories! Thank you for writing this. I grew up in Exira, and heard about “The Flood of ’58” all my life. (PS, the town you mentioned – Braydon – is spelled “Brayton”.

  4. Brayton, not Braydon.
    I’m a lifelong Exiran, 9 at the time. The stories told by/about those clinging to the gravel truck would give you nightmares.

    Nice job, brassardjohn, come to Exira to see the flood museum and to see the flood memorial park which stopped the devastating fire this July.

    1. Thank you for reading, Susan. I’m going to get that typo changed in just a few minutes, ma’am. I am in the process of making plans to come out to Exira and visit sometime here soon.

  5. This was forwarded on to me by my friend Pete L in the Twin Cities. My dad grew up in Audubon, and I would have been 3 at the time of the flood. We used to visit my grandparents and they lived in a low area of town, but I don’t remember this . . too young. Thanks for your research and writing it up.

  6. I was 3 at the time of the flood and have heard my mom and dad, Berle and Bev Coffman, tell stories of the flood of ’58. I remember being taken to the neighbor’s house in the midle of the night in the terrible storm so that my parents could go help with sand bagging. Lana Coffman-Kuball

    1. That’s an amazing memory to have, Lana. That storm must have been terrifying. It’s always been interesting to me what memories we have from those early childhood years. I’m glad that you and yours made it through safe.

  7. I was 8 years old, even though you’d think I wouldn’t remember but I do very clearly. We lived in Hamlin next to the creek. It was already coming in our back door. We lost a dog, but my Uncle Emery Bertelsen drove across the bridge and took us to his home up high. My parents lost their business, Nutrena Feeds in Hamlin, Iowa. The flood pretty much took care of our very small town as far as business for some time. I remember the people that lost their lives, the mud inside our home, bugs, worms, and snakes. Something I will never forget.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Cindi. I’m very sorry to hear about your families losses during the flood. I’m not at all surprised that you remember so much of what happened, ma’am. Something like that you’re probably never very likely to forget.

  8. Following are some of my recollections as a 16 year old kid:
    *Seeing the whole river valley turned into a lake as we came into town that morning from the south on what was then County K road
    *National Guard troops making sure that everyone entering had a purpose other than sight seeing
    * A series of typhoid shots for all
    *Shoveling muck and silt several inches thick that covered everything after the water subsided
    *Salvation Army light trucks with members handing out coffee and snacks to clean-up workers
    *Shoveling muck out of the house of a family that lost everything but their lives
    *Seeing railroad tracks between Brayton and Exira twisted into the air like a giant corkscrew by the force of water (and knowing that the East Nishabotna River is normally no more than an oversize creek in the summer)
    *Personally knowing, even at that relatively young age, the stories and people mentioned in the account and comments above

    1. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Stuart. From what you’re saying, and from what some other people have also said, the aftermath and the clean-up of the flood damage was almost as bad or worse than the flood itself.

  9. I remember my parents Harvey and Dolores Byriel talk about that flood of ’58. My Dad’s youngest brother Donald Byriel was one of the boys in the group of young men who was swept away in the waters . Only one of those boys made it . It was not Donald.I was just a baby at the time , but the tragedy of that flood hit the entire Byriel family . PBS did a story on that flood years back .At the end of the story they ran a list of those who perished in the floor . It was meaningful to me to see my uncle Donald Byriel’s and all the other victims name .

    1. I’m very sorry for the loss of your family, Peggy. That was a horrible day in Iowa history. However, I’m glad to see that PBS honored your uncle in that way, so that people know that he lived and that he mattered. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

  10. I remember my dad, Hubert Porter, launching his boat to rescue as many as they could. He launched his boat into the flood water at the intersection of Highway 6 and Walnut Street in downtown Atlantic and started north.

  11. My daughter was born that next nite. Our dr Called Her His “flood” Baby. Also, my grandparents were both lost in the flood. It was unbelievable to see.
    .

    1. Kay – that is a truly bitter sweet story. I’m both happy for the birth of your child and the tragic loss of your grandparents. Thank you for sharing that with me.

  12. I too remember the Flood Of 1958. We {my bro. & parents } were living in a newly built basement house waiting for the top to be built in a few years. Grandparents {Griffins} came to visit that night, but was raining so hard could not see to drive to their home in south Aud. county. I remember that mother had some small ducks outside, she went and put them in a cardboard box and brought them inside. The next morning after all the rain we woke up ,the basement was full of water and the baby ducks were swimming around as the water soaked through the box. Kind of a funny side to the flood.

  13. There were thirteen men on the gravel truck that night and were known by the lucky thirteen from then on . Lee Thompson was my dad. I know much more about this and it all isn’t good cause alot of people could of got out alot earlier.

  14. My father, Milo Clemmensen, was in the Audubon fire department. He spoke often of this flood. It had quite an effect on him. Firefighters and others were working to save people. Dad asked to have a rope tied around him so he could swim out to the people in trees. After Dad thrashed around for a while, the others pulled him back and said: “Why didn’t you tell us that you can’t swim?” Dad was gone all night helping to rescue people and nearly got swept away himself a few times. He had very vivid memories. Jerry Lauritsen was a lifelong friend of Dad’s. I was only 5 but I recall watching our washing machine bob up and down in the basement. We lived about a quarter mile from the Bluegrass but were high enough to be safe. As I got older, I wondered what Mom was thinking. She was home with us kids and Dad was gone all night. There were no cell phones in those days. Mom had to wait until the next day to find our her husband was OK. It was quite an experience for so many people.

    1. Thank you for sharing your father’s story, Rex. I have nothing but the utmost respect for those who, like him, went out and braved those terrible flood waters to rescue the survivors. Honestly, I don’t know how an experience like that couldn’t have an effect on someone.

  15. We lost my brother and his wife, their friends Max Cornish and Camille Buckner in the flash flood as they we coming back from Missouri and encountered this storm. Literally swept away in a heart beat and left years of heart ache to many families. There has never been a July 4th holiday since that there wasn’t sadness. The loss that the family still has will never be forgotten for the duration. It took it’s toll on everyone and we have and will continue through the generations to remember this tragedy. In loving memory of Clyde and Martha Funderburk-Carrick, Max Cornish & Camille Buckner. To my parents, my you rest in peace, as it certainly took it’s toll. There isn’t anything worse than loosing a child, sibling, or dear friend, no matter the reason. We visit you twice s year and it is still hard to understand why . . 60 years later!

  16. Thanks for this site. This is very real to me yet today. We also were on our way back from Missouri Beth and were the children that spent the night on the gravel truck at Bill Jacobson’s Gas Station. You have called us the Lucky 13. We see it as a miracle from God. If your evacuation team had finished up earlier I would not be writing this. Myself Kenn then 6 1/2 Keith 4 and Steve 2 1/2 and our sister will be at the Exira Library Dec. 8 2018 from 2-5 pm giving thanks and sharing stories of that night for any of you that can be there. Hope to see you there.

    1. Thank you for sharing this, Kenn. It truly was a miracle from God, that’s for sure. I just received this a few hours ago, so I’m getting it out as fast as I can. According to the date, we’ve missed you by a little over a week. Is there another time that you folks will be out there so that we might be able and come and see you?

  17. Hi, Please correct the date if it’s past as it is still coming this week. Tuesday, Dec 18 2018 from 2-5pm in the Exira Library . Connie Faga now of Audabon has set this up for us. Her dad Norman Baier is the hero that held this boy ALL night long.

    1. Thank you for that update, Kenn. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to attend. However, I’m going to put this out on my Facebook page to let people know about this. Thank you for letting me know, and also for putting on the event so that we can hear your stories first hand.

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