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Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 17, 2018

Strongest Iowa tornado in years strikes Marshalltown

Emergency crews and residents start to recover from EF-3 storm
By Madison Arnold, The Gazette | Jul 23, 2018
Photo by: Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette State and federal elected officials survey tornado damage as they tour the downtown in Marshalltown on Friday. Temporary shelters have been set up for the displaced, and emergency crews are working to remove debris and downed powerlines.

MARSHALLTOWN — Marcelo Verdinez was just headed down the basement steps to join his family seeking shelter from a tornado when the winds came.

Shortly before 5 p.m. Thursday, the tornado tore through his neighborhood near downtown, ripping a large pine out of the yard and tossing it against a neighbor’s house, mangling the roof and blowing out nearly all the windows.

“I was thinking it was going to twist the house because it was cracking,” Verdinez said. “Whatever was going to happen was going to happen, no matter what.”

He thinks it will take a month to clean up his property. That realization — that it will take weeks, months or longer to recover from the EF-3 tornado that struck this community of some 27,000 people — settled in even as crews worked feverishly Friday to restore some of the basics like electricity and gas.

The National Weather Service determined that both Marshalltown and Pella, farther south, each were struck by EF-3 tornadoes with peak winds of 144 mph — the strongest storms to hit Iowa since 2015, weather service records show.

Verdinez and his family made is through the storm. And despite the severity of damage, so did everyone else. Emergency officials said no Marshalltown residents were killed or suffered serious injuries.

The storm seemed to strike at the heart of the city. Marshalltown Fire Chief Dave Rierson said the town suffered “significant damage” about six to eight blocks west of its downtown and another 12 blocks to the east.

A tower adorning the top of a more-than-century old courthouse was ripped down. Facades on downtown buildings fell off and formed piles of bricks. Broken glass, fallen trees and smashed cars lined the streets.

More than 5,000 customers remained without power Friday afternoon.

“Just some drive throughs that I’ve had last night and early this morning, we have suffered some extensive damage,” Rierson said at a news conference.

Fourteen trained crews began canvassing the city early Friday.

Marshalltown appeared to suffer the most damage from a series of tornadoes that walloped Iowa on Thursday.

One, classified as an EF-2 with peak winds of 114 mph, touched down in Bondurant, just northeast of Des Moines.

Two, both classified as EF-1 with peak winds of 110 mph, briefly touched down near Keosauqua in Van Buren County and damaged farm buildings, equipment and crops, the weather service said.

The other EF-3 homed in on the Vermeer manufacturing plant in Pella, causing only minor injuries to seven workers but major damage to the plant.

“It’s just unbelievable really when you take a look at the devastation and destruction that you see,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds, who surveyed the damage elsewhere before seeing it in Marshalltown on Friday afternoon. She was joined by U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, U.S. Rep. Rod Blum and other officials.

The governor issued a disaster proclamation for four Iowa counties as a result of the storms. The proclamation allows for state resources to go to recovery efforts.

“I want to stress the miracle, the fact, that there was no life lost,” Ernst said. “Rod and I will be working together if it comes to a federal disaster declaration — we’ll work with the communities to ensure that we’re providing all the support that we can.”

Volunteers and emergency workers already were pouring into Marshalltown, facing a lot of work and challenges:

• A curfew of between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. was put into effect again.

• Alliant Energy spokesman Justin Foss said more than 200 crews were in the town working to repair the damage, which he called a “multiday effort.” Foss said the company received reports of gas leaks Thursday, and crews worked through the night to make the system safe. Still, Alliant was not yet relighting customers.

• About 500 power poles need to be replaced. Alliant began receiving shipments of new poles directly from the manufacturer overnight.

• The UnityPoint Health-Marshalltown building sustained extensive damage. Crews evacuated 43 patients to facilities in Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, Ames and Grinnell, said Pam Dellagradel, chief executive officer of UnityPoint Health-Waterloo. The Marshalltown emergency department was moved to its Medical Campus location on the south side of the city, where emergency care and urgent care were operational, she said. But services and departments at the main hospital were closed.

• The Lennox Industries manufacturing plant suffered extensive damage.

• The American Red Cross opened a shelter at the Meskwaki Bingo Casino in Tama and took in 28 people who had been displaced — a number that could grow. The shelter moved Friday to the YMCA to be closer to people who needed help.

“It was really incredible to hear the people coming in,” said regional communications officer. “I don’t know where they’re from but all of them have incredible stories how they wound up there.”

Even those who did not wind up there had similar stories to tell.

Kevin Hitchins, a lawyer with a law firm just across the street from the county courthouse, said he was in his second-floor office when he saw debris circulating outside. Soon, the brick topper on his building fell to the sidewalk.

“That’s what really got us worried that the whole building was going down,” he said.

Beside the brick damage. the building’s windows were blown apart.

“My business is closed for the day, my car is stuck in the garage because it has broken windows and my house as no power with a roof that’s severely damaged,” Hitchins said. “So it’s tough.”

His brother and nephew spent Friday morning sweeping bricks off the sidewalk. Hitchins has already filed an insurance claim.

Olivia Rodriguez’s home near downtown was damaged, though she stayed in it during the storm. While much of her roof is damaged and her cars are stuck, the houses on either side of her sustained significant structural damage.

She said her family didn’t begin the cleanup until Friday morning because they were in shock Thursday night.

“We have life. We have to be strong,” she said.

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