- Associated Press - Sunday, September 17, 2017

MUSCATINE, Iowa (AP) - Greg Wall remembers the exact time a tornado plowed through Muscatine, causing a 75-foot tall chimney to crash into the roof of Wesley United Methodist Church, damaging the sanctuary and demolishing its organ.

Clocks stopped at 10:10 p.m., according to Wall, chairman of the board of trustees, who remembers the whole building shaking during the March 6 tornado. In the end, there were about a quarter of a million dollars worth of damages to the church. Within minutes, Wall said the church was a “beehive of activity,” as police and firefighters arrived. Soon after, the insurance company and contractors arrived.

“The first thing (we noticed) was a bus in the parking lot that probably had been moved about 30 or 40 feet, with three broken windows and a gash in the side of it,” Wall told the Muscatine Journal .

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Upon entering the church, he said the main priority was making sure the building was secure, and gas and other utility lines could be shut off. Then, Wall and other trustees could assess the damage.

The 200-yard wide EF2 tornado, as classified by the National Weather Service, traveled nearly two miles through Muscatine. Wesley’s Family Life Center, across the street from the church, received damage to its roof and its heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. Winds smashed windows in the church’s education wing, ripped shingles off the roof and destroyed plaster on walls.

Most noticeable, though, was the sanctuary. The church’s tall chimney had been ripped in half by strong winds and carried over the sanctuary, where it smashed through the roof, destroying the chancel and church organ.

The organ, which was installed in the 1980s and includes pieces of the church’s original 1911 organ, was pushed on top of the chancel, with parts flying into the sanctuary’s seating area. Wall said the organ was demolished.

They were able to salvage about 100 of the 5,000 pipes, plus some chimes that were part of the original organ.

“So hopefully we will have a little bit of both organs in the new one,” Wall said.

The church has formed an organ search committee, and has been contacting manufacturers in the Midwest. He hopes to choose a company later this month to supply a new organ, which could take two years to fully install.

Some repairs to the church, including exterior and electric work, is estimated to cost more than $250,000, according to the building permit filed with the city. A new organ could cost up to $3 million, Wall said.

Despite the damage, Wall said there were silver linings. In the sanctuary, only one wall-sized stained-glass window, installed in 1911, sustained damage. The window’s frame was damaged and pushed in about 2 inches, but the stained-glass was spared. A company reinstalled the window about three weeks ago.

It has also been an opportunity to “generally spruce up” the church. While crews repair damage to the sanctuary, Wall said church officials decided to make some needed improvements.

The sanctuary will get new floors, carpet, paint and LED lighting. The church will upgrade its audio and video systems, renovate the balconies and add a handicap accessible ramp. Other parts of the church are being renovated as well, and the main hallways will be repainted.

When the new organ is installed, Wall said, it will sit near a renovated, larger chancel. New insulation and electric work should improve the acoustics in the sanctuary.

“This is the time to do it,” Wall said. “We’ve already got the contractors here and everything is in disarray anyway, so we might as well do it now.”

Wesley United Methodist Church has started a capital campaign to fund the renovations, and Wall said support from the community has helped make the project come together.

“We’ve had excellent support from people in the community and people away from here,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who used to go here and have ties to Muscatine but moved away, and they are always willing to help.”

The church’s chimney has been replaced and is now functional, and exterior repairs are nearly finished. Wall hopes the sanctuary and other interior work will be completed in November. In the meantime, Wesley’s congregation - about 250 members - continue to hold weekly services at the Family Life Center.


Information from: Muscatine Journal, https://www.muscatinejournal.com

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