Early warning prevented injuries in Iowa twister

AP News
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Posted: Apr 11, 2011 5:50 PM
Early warning prevented injuries in Iowa twister

It seemed like a Mapleton Miracle. A tornado with winds exceeding 130 mph barreled through this small Iowa town, flattening whole blocks and destroying 100 homes.

When the storm passed, more than half the town had been leveled. But the most serious injury was a broken leg.

Storm spotters who tracked the approaching twister were being credited Monday with giving residents a crucial 15-minute warning, allowing most people to take shelter and preventing the kind of tornado disaster that killed four teens at a Boy Scout camp near here in 2008.

Anytime a powerful tornado hits "and you don't have any serious injuries or deaths, you're lucky," Monona County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said. "We are just very fortunate."

On Monday, volunteers from all over Iowa streamed into town to begin cleaning up downed trees and rubble.

Tamara Adams, 37, was carrying tree branches to the curb outside her home Sunday when a stranger approached with a chain saw asking if she needed help. It was the closest thing to a "magic wand" she hoped to receive.

"Everybody's safe," Adams said. "Yeah, people are suffering now. But you've just got to do what you've got to do."

Damage-assessment teams began a street-by-street survey in Mapleton, a community of 1,200 about 45 miles southeast of Sioux City. The American Red Cross was offering health services, as well as food and water to emergency responders and volunteers.

Townspeople were grateful for the abundant help _ and for the extra time they had to escape the storm.

Barbara Mayes, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Omaha, Neb., said scientists realized two to three days in advance that there was a strong chance of severe weather. That early notice, combined with the visual sightings and instant weather reports, created a best-case scenario when the twister drew near.

"This is a good example of the process working like we want it to," Mayes said.

About 100 Mapleton homes were destroyed Saturday evening, displacing an estimated 600 people. At least 14 people suffered minor injuries.

The storm also uprooted the huge, centuries-old trees that give the town its name. The trees were wrapped around houses and tossed on top of cars.

The weather service said the tornado was on the ground for 3 1/2 miles and measured three-quarters of a mile wide at one point. The twister was measured as an EF3 on the tornado-strength scale, which carries wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph.

The limited injuries were especially remarkable considering a high school play was being performed when the storm struck. Sections of the building's roof were peeled off, and windows were shattered.

As many as 400 people huddled in the school's basement until the winds died down, Superintendent Steve Oberg said.

"It's built like a bunker," he said. "They were in there safe. Nobody was freaking out or anything." No one in the school was hurt.

Classes were canceled Monday so repairs could begin. Students were to return Tuesday following an inspection by an engineer. The school's prom, scheduled for this weekend, will go on as planned, Oberg said.

Monday's cleanup brought volunteers from far and wide, including Parkersburg, a northeast Iowa town that was leveled by a tornado in May 2008, the sheriff said.

Eight people were killed by that storm, which had winds in excess of 200 mph. A month later, a tornado with winds of 145 mph struck the Little Sioux Boy Scout ranch, about 30 miles southwest of Mapleton.

On Saturday, at least nine tornadoes touched down in Iowa, according to the weather service.

The same storm that produced the Mapleton twister also spawned six others that touched down in Sac, Pocahontas and Kossuth counties as it moved to the northeast. Damage was reported to numerous homes, farm buildings and power lines.

Two tornadoes were also reported in Ida County, including near Galva, where an ethanol plant was damaged.

"What was interesting about this is we had crossing (damage) paths," said Jeff Johnson, a meteorologist with the weather service in Johnston, Iowa. "It was a very complex system. So many things moving in different directions."