April 2006 Archives

Ground Zero: Iowa Avenue

Today I toured around Iowa City to see the tornado damage. Most of the city was completely unaffected, the weather was beautiful, the sun shining, and the trees just beginning to turn green. But the areas in the center of town were a bleak contrast, blasted by winds and torn to shreds.
I decided to visit my childhood home in the historic Woodlawn district. Iowa City was a planned community, the original State Capitol, and was designed around a broad boulevard, Iowa Avenue, that would stretch between the Capitol Building and the Governor's Mansion. This plan was copied after Washington DC, where the US Capitol and the White House are at opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Iowa Capitol was moved to Des Moines before the Governor's Mansion was built, so Woodlawn was sold and many of the city's oldest homes were built there, many of them are nearly 150 years old.
This photograph shows the view down Iowa Avenue, you can just see the golden dome of the Old Capitol building in the center, and just to its left are the gothic spires of the old State Hospital. This is the view the entire city was built around.


This photograph was taken from the very spot where I would set off each morning to deliver newspapers on my paper route down Iowa Avenue. Each morning I would look down the tree-lined boulevard and look for the rising sun glinting off the dome, it would only be visible during the winter, and for a few weeks in the spring, before the tall trees spread their leaves and obscured the view. But the view never ever looked like this.
Nearly all the trees have been stripped from the boulevard. In their place, electric poles have been hastily erected to restore power to the damaged buildings. Almost all the old homes have blue tarps covering the massive holes in their roofs. Cranes were lifting piles of debris into huge dump trucks, I had to wait a while for them to pass before I could take an unobstructed photograph. Students were moving out of their damaged homes, their cars stuffed full of clothing and books. Just off camera to the left, a Red Cross truck was dispensing food and water to the local residents and emergency workers.
I walked up Woodlawn to see my old home, it was undamaged, but it was heartbreaking to see the 200 year old oak trees smashed to bits. I could not take any pictures, almost every direction was blocked by piles of debris stacked 6 feet tall. The 40 foot tall pine tree that stood outside my bedroom window was snapped off and only the bottom 10 feet remained. Almost every tree was smashed to bits, leaving only jagged stumps barely higher than the piles of debris.
I drove around the city but I could not approach the most damaged areas, the streets were blocked off. Highway Patrolmen were directing traffic down Burlington, the traffic lights were torn down. The most astonishing sight was Green Square Park, I saw an uprooted oak tree that was 6 feet in diameter, it pulled up a huge ball of soil 10 feet across.
The entire landscape of the center of Iowa City has been changed by the loss of the trees in the oldest section of town. I feel more acutely the loss of the natural landscape, than the loss of the houses. A house, even a historic 150 year old house, can be rebuilt quickly, but a 200 year old oak tree takes exactly 200 years to replace, if it even manages to survive that long. Many of these trees were here before any houses were built, the city grew around the trees. That circumstance will never happen again.

BlogTV: Tornado!

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A devastating Tornado hit Iowa City late last night. I had no idea what was happening, I knew the storm was serious, since I went out and collected a few hailstones and posted a picture. But soon the storm subsided, the emergency sirens stopped blaring, and my cable TV was off the air, so I just went to bed.
The next morning, I was awakened by a phone call from my sister in Oregon, asking if I was all right. I was barely awake and I could only think to myself, "what the hell?" She said there were news reports of a huge tornado striking the city, this was the first I'd heard of it, but I reassured her that I was fine. Within a few hours, TV news started reporting the true level of devastation. I am releasing a Fair Use compilation of some local TV news clips, click on the image to play the video clip.

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Live news coverage originated from the most heavily damaged building in downtown, St. Patrick's Catholic Church. It seems that whenever a tornado strikes in Iowa, the local church is always destroyed. I had a strange wish that I could have been there in person to witness it, I could have been the heathen anti-theist buddhist bellowing at the fleeing parishioners, "where is your god now?" News coverage showed other local landmarks that had been flattened, like the old Dairy Queen. I had to laugh at the wreckage, it was splattered with blood-red cherry syrup.
But I should not make light of the situation. Millions of dollars of property was damaged and destroyed. Low income housing areas near the University are devastated, and many hapless young college students are now homeless, having lost their first independent homes. A sorority house was destroyed, and the sisters put on their bravest smiling faces for the camera, as they described being in the house as it was torn apart. That was one block from my childhood home, I used to deliver newspapers to the sorority on my paper route. I wonder if my childhood home is undamaged, it is a historic Victorian house in the oldest neighborhood in the city.
I noticed a short interview with a woman through the broken window of the hair salon where I get my hair cut. The salon wasn't badly damaged, just some broken windows and fallen ceiling tiles, they should be back up and running before my next haircut appointment in a couple weeks. Next to the hair salon is a liquor store, the local student newspaper The Daily Iowan reported that their wall collapsed and students looted it (archived PDF story). I suspect that looting was more widespread than generally reported. The storm struck the downtown area late at night, just as the bars were full of students soaking up liquor. Newspapers reported that after the storm, crowds of thousands of students wandered through the downtown streets, but this is not particularly unusual for any Thursday night in the bar district. As the weekend approaches, city officials seem most concerned with directing the student population away from the closed bar district.
I was shocked to see the damage at the auto dealers. The worst damage was out by Highway 1, a few blocks from the storage facility where I have almost everything I own in a storage lockup. I frantically called them and was relieved to hear that the buildings were undamaged and my stuff is safe.
As I watched the unfolding story of my hometown's devastation, I had mixed feelings. I hate this town and am desperate to move away from here, I try not to engage with the city in any way that might form more attachments, yet I discover that I am more attached to this town than I care to admit. This makes it even more difficult to move on. This town is full of people who pass through, and in their short time here, they form attachments to institutions and landmarks that are obviously all too impermanent. It is time for me to move on, and stop caring about this town. And that is the hardest thing to do of all.



The hailstones were about 1/2 inch larger before I carried them inside.
Update: Tornado!
Update: Five Tornados! I'll post more info as soon as I can.

Computing With A #2 Pencil

For many years, I've told people about how I first learned how to write computer programs by writing on Hollerith Cards with a pencil, but nobody ever believes me. But now, thanks to some research by local computer historian Douglas Jones, I have proof. This card was known as a "Mark Sense" card, you would fill in the little rectangles with a #2 pencil, and the optical card reader would sense the marks.


Sometime around 1968, my math teacher got a grant for some computer time on the University of Iowa mainframes and decided to teach a few of us how write simple FORTRAN programs. In those primitive times, computers used Hollerith cards for input, but obviously it was impractical for little kids to use keypunch machines. So we used Mark Sense cards, painstakingly filling out the little cards with a #2 pencil. It was quite difficult to use the cards accurately, we would often spend as much time correcting input errors in the cards as debugging the programs. It was incredibly frustrating to write a whole program correctly, and then receive no output because you filled in one wrong spot and wrote "PRINL" instead of "PRINT."