A Memorable High School Graduation: The Tornado of 2019

Graduation ceremonies tend to have a certain sameness to them. The caps, the gowns, the “Pomp and Circumstance.” In fact, I was sort of discouraging grandparents from coming to my daughter Rachel’s grad ceremony, because I figured it would be long and boring. But, grandmas are grandmas, and they enjoy rituals. Both of Rachel’s grandmas came.

Iowa City West High’s commencement ceremony was at Carver Hawkeye Arena on Friday, May 24. I got Rachel there in plenty of time; she greeted some friends on the outdoor steps, and I took her “before” picture for posterity.

Iowa City Graduation tornado
Before the storm

Then, I left her with her friends and went to get seats. I was saving for the rest of my family, and I didn’t want grandparents to have to walk down too many stairs–we had already been warned that the elevators would not be running for the ceremony. I was glad the weather wasn’t too hot, as Carver Hawkeye arena is not air conditioned.

“Welcome to the Midwest!”

The graduates were required to be present at 6:15, and they had been instructed at rehearsal to wait on the concourse for their big moment. However, shortly after 6:15, they were told to sit in the auditorium instead.

The commencement ceremony had been planned to begin at 7 p.m.  At 6:20 or so, phones began buzzing all over the arena–a tornado warning had been issued for Johnson County. The rest of my family had not yet arrived. My husband told me that he looked around as he was driving but didn’t see anything, so he continued on. Most of the attendees were Iowans; we sat in our chairs, not feeling too much fear. We’ve been through this before. Some even went to the windows to check it out. I posted on my Facebook, “Hey, there’s a tornado warning at this high school graduation!”, which garnered responses such as “Welcome to the Midwest!”

The rest of my family arrived, and shortly after that, West’s principal Dr. Gregg Shoultz announced, “I know we’re all Iowans, but this is a tornado warning. We really do need you all to get lower, get on the floor. Away from the windows!” So down all the steps we went. Rachel reports that the graduates hadn’t really known why they had been told to sit in the audience instead of waiting; they couldn’t hear the announcements on the concourse, and many of them had given their phones to parents because their dresses and robes lacked pockets.

“This will be a memorable one!” people remarked.

The general mood as we made our way down the stairs and across the parquet was mostly light–there were a few younger attendees who seemed upset, but most adults seemed calm. “This will be a memorable one!” people remarked. We were told to stay away from the scoreboard, which had been showing senior photos and then switched to a weather radar. It showed a giant red blob passing right over Iowa City. 

At first, the tunnels under the arena seemed to be full, so we milled about near the tunnels. We found our graduate and some friends near the bleachers by the tunnels, where they stayed until one of their parents texted, “No really–go in the tunnel now.” As people pushed farther back into the tunnel, more room was made for the thousands in attendance. I heard later that some folks even got to wait in air conditioned conference rooms with Bob’s Burgers showing on a television.

The public safety officers ordered us all into the tunnels, and I did begin to get a little worried.

I have seen the destructive power of tornadoes in Parkersburg in 2008 and in Iowa City in 2006. I hoped our dog, home all alone, would be okay. I worried for the safety of people and property.

Emma, Emma, and Rachel by the tunnels

I also took a photograph in the tunnel and tweeted it. (It was retweeted by local news stations and something called “The Disaster Channel.”)

Sheltering from the tornado warning in the tunnels at Carver Hawkeye

We spent about 45 minutes in the crowded tunnels, waiting for clearance to re-enter the arena.

People checked weather updates on local news stations and on Twitter. Our daughter showed us videos that looked too close for comfort; one video of a funnel cloud taken from the Hilton Garden Inn in Iowa City that appeared to be heading our way.

At last, we were given the all clear. The graduates were instructed to be seated, saving them a trip back up the steps up Carver Hawkeye.  The attendees were not so lucky; we trooped back up the steps–this time to slightly closer seats, although one grandparent did admit that she had the opportunity to make sure her rescue inhaler still worked. (It did.) The orchestra played a few bars of “Pomp and Circumstance,” which felt anticlimactic, but also necessary.

Under the no-longer-dangerous scoreboard

Because of the delay, the students did not do a processional.

This would have required them to walk back up all the stairs. I suspect, had we had a processional, this is the point at which I would have teared up at the thought of my child graduating–instead, I was mostly just hot (did I mention the no air conditioning?) and eager to get the ceremony going. 

Soon, Coralville’s commencement ceremonies will be hosted at the newly built and air conditioned Xtream Arena. This should be in time for my next graduate, which will be in 2022. And hopefully we won’t have any tornadoes, blizzards, floods, or any other weather events at that time.

My heart goes out to our friends in Frytown who did have damage, and a friend who posted a partially blown down barn. I am glad that the tornado chose to spare the West High class of 2019, and I believe City High, Liberty High, and Tate High’s ceremonies were much less eventful.


Sharon Falduto is a Central Iowa native who came to University of Iowa in 1991 and essentially never left the area. She is involved in local community theater, notably as one of the co-founders of Iowa City's Dreamwell Theatre. She has also directed children's plays with the Young Footliters group. Sharon works in with English Language Learners in a support position at Kirkwood Community College.. She lives in Coralville with her husband, Matt, and three daughters Rachel, Samantha, and Piper.


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