RATHBUN LAKE — On July 20, only 48 hours after Rathbun Lake Marina celebrated the completion of their iconic 52-foot lighthouse, gale-force winds howled through the Marina’s harbor tossing boats and twisting steel docks like aluminum foil. The celebratory mood throughout the Marina hailing the culmination of a summer’s work turned as somber as scoops of ice cream-looking rain clouds threatened.
The storm stewed and hit with a force. Winds estimated between 65-75 mph in cahoots with whitecap breaking waves sucker-punched all manmade accesses connecting land, people, water, and boats throughout the harbor. The Marina’s above water infrastructure of docks, walkways, bridges, ramps, and boat-slips were grabbed, tossed and slammed.
The gale wouldn’t stop. For 25 minutes the wind and rain beat on the Marina.
The harbor’s energized basin bottom swirling with blackish water was pushing up and moving down cables, concrete mooring blocks, pilings, and anchored buoys. Seiches were relocating the Marina’s labyrinth of floating and fixed boat docks and shelters.
Chad Snyder, of Mitchellville, was guiding his boat into one of the Marina’s boat slips when gale winds shattered his afternoon fun.
“We were on the water as the storm came in and when it left,” he said. “Some Marina bridges were so twisted the boaters couldn’t get back to land. I’ve never experienced a storm like this one.”
“During the storm, many of us on the docks were hanging on for dear life,” posted an out-of-state couple on Facebook.
Transformers being sucked out of the nearby ground now slammed into harbor walkways and into the water like bombs. Yellow hot electric sparks glinted in the wet air before submerging.
The WeatherChannel.com was trending a 51-second video of the Marina’s gale captured on a cell phone. In big yellow letters, the video begins with the words, “Terror on the lake in southern Iowa.”
Striking in the heart of Rathbun’s vacation season, it amazed Marina owner Doug Clemens.
"There were probably a thousand people on the property when the storm came through,” he said. “No one got hurt. That is just amazing. Not only talking about the 10 plus years I’ve been at the Marina, but also never in my lifetime have I seen winds as strong as what came through here.”
“Picture 200 boats hiding-out together in this cove,” Clemens said. “The boats can’t tie up to each other. Each boat must have its own individual anchor. Now picture a big wind taking all of those boats for a ride.”
It’s been a little over two weeks since Doug was flying around the Marina’s vast property on his green John Deere Gator. One of the three Marina’s partners was already assessing the damage with eyes on the recovery.
“All the boats are safe, no one needed to worry about that,” Clemens remembers thinking.
The Storm Recovery Assessment
A few days post-storm, Clemens was already making an assessment of the Marina’s damage.
“We saw the size and scope of what lay before us: Massive, but achievable,” Clemens recalled. “It would have been nice to call a company to just come in and give us a quick rebuild. However, it just doesn’t work that way in this industry. So, we brought a multitude of companies together to help us complete the task.
“At the beginning, we had to remove bridges, ramps, docks, and walkways, which present individual challenges. The dock system renovation will be the most time-consuming process. This involves the rebuilding of dock’s finger trusses, then reattaching dock sections, and replacing the damaged decks. This labor-intensive work involves utilities, metal fabrication, and deck woodwork.”
Steel cables, trusses, iron chains, deformed docks, 10,000-pound cement blocks called stones, all lay dead in a tangled underwater grave.
“Removing water debris was one priority,” Clemens said. “We couldn’t replace mooring systems or reposition docks with twisted bridges in the way. This would involve a lot of water work, barge work, involving heavy equipment. We knew we needed to secure all the dock systems from further damage.”
The Marina’s complex system of bridges had been thrown around like Lincoln Logs in the gale winds. A total of 11 of the Marina’s major bridges were either damaged or destroyed.
Doug’s skilled and hardworking Marina crew was going to need an influx of manpower. Not only was there the harbor work, but the storm pulled two power grids into the water. The gale left in its wake a massive clean-up and repair.
“Creating a workforce based on skills and strength in a short time will be challenging,” predicts Clemens. “We have created a good list of temporary workers to create crews. The response to our call for help has been tremendous.
“People are seeing how extensively we were damaged and what it involves rebuilding the Marina. We have received a tremendous outpouring of support and we appreciate that. We appreciate people for understanding and their patience. We will make this place even better. Crews are working on the grounds now, which is a continual thing.”
Like the sun reflecting off the new lighthouse’s beacon, Clemens reflected on the two weeks of progress.
“I would have to say overall we are doing well,” Clemens said. “When a business gets hit this hard even the simple operations become challenging because we have to prioritize. Do I focus on the individual or do I focus on the whole group?”
He continued, “Once we got through triage and were stable then we developed crews and got more things going. I have a very special crew to accomplish this much, this soon.
“We are getting back in position and its beginning to feel a little normal. Looking stronger, getting there every day. Very challenging but simple: Safety, security, then serve,” the impregnable former Air Force man commanded.
Clemens’ service to his country in the Air Force as a survival equipment specialist was about to lead his Marina out of its worse storm in memory.
Staging on the grounds of the Marina are large 10,000-pound concrete blocks or stones, each freshly poured on-site. Like pestilent Sumo Wrestlers, those incredible blocks of concrete squat on a closed section of the Marina’s parking.
Concrete loses much of its weight underwater. Up to 42% of concrete’s land weight is lost submerged. While the cove’s basin churned by a devil’s hand, concrete mooring blocks were silted in, rolled or buried, making them impossible to locate or deal with in the black water.
“Stones are attached to cables that are then attached to the docks, holding them in place. We have to make 30 of these concrete blocks or stones at varying sizes. Stones will weigh 7,000, 8,000, and 10,000 pounds. They are all numbered because they have to be placed in the lake in sequence. Heavy machinery such as cranes pick up the stones and are delivered in place underwater by a barge with a winch-system.”
Virtually no entity that serviced any function for boaters being united with their birthed boats survived the storm. At the height of the estimated 75 mile-per-hour gale winds, two transformers that stood onshore gave up and crashed into the greenish turbulent Marina water. They compromised the whole Marina’s electric loop.
“Then when we talked about the utility rebuild, we knew that would require electricians, plumbers, steel and concrete work. Anything like that has to be to current codes,” explains Clemens.
Sections of the Marina’s vast parking lot look like a construction supplies triage.
Monster strands of 300-foot steel cables laid out across a section of pier parking like a plate of Godzilla’s spaghetti. On another closed-off section of parking sits four giant sewing spools with black insulated electric wire wrapped around and around.
“REC is working on getting the transformer off the north dock, the bottom loop of our electric grid. They are establishing the directional board for a new transformer,” points out Clemens.
Walking around the Marina’s perimeter Clemens took a second for a smile as if he remembered something that had recently gone very right.
“In the image of our new lighthouse we are putting up never-before-seen four precast concrete 13-foot towers. They will serve as the new power towers. Resembling a smaller version of our new iconic lighthouse we are adding the names of the docks on the front and back written on the top white ring. This will be very handy for boaters coming into the Marina trying to remember and finding their dock.”
“We’re considering our years of floods and now wind experience, all the things that have gone both right and wrong over the ten years I have been here and we will improve upon it.”
As gloomy clouds took a break and the mid-morning sun glanced over the shimmering Marina’s water, Clemens pledged, “We will create something that is safer, stronger, and more aesthetically appealing. That’s the silver lining.”
The Lighthouse Keepers
Nature reflects the duality of human life’s cycles. Planting then harvesting, winter then spring, day and night, the high and low tides. Everywhere you look.
The Marina celebrated the high by completing North America’s only 52-foot, pre-cast concrete lighthouse and in mere days experienced the low by triaging gale-force wind damage.
"We just built this thing [lighthouse] then two days later we get our butts kicked,” Clemens said. “I mean really get our butts kicked. For me the lighthouse is telling the Marina to hang in there, it’ll get better.”
“I want to thank everyone for their support, it's been overwhelming,” Clemens continued. “I actually can get emotional when I think of the overwhelming support we are getting from patrons and visitors alike.”
It’s A Crock
“I saw a Country Crock butter commercial years ago,” begins this most endearing captain. Clemens continues, “A mom was talking with her daughter. And the daughter asked her mother a question about something or the other. And the mother stopped what she was doing and looking at her daughter, she said, ‘You’d be surprised at what you can do when you have to.’
“And that has always stuck with me. ... What the mother said. Not necessarily the butter.”
Keepers of the lighthouse, they’ll leave the beacon on.