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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“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.