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Iowa town cleaning up after twister

Mayor estimates 60 percent of small town damaged by tornado

BY JOHN PAPE | MAPLETON, IA | April 10, 2011

"When you first get into town, there’s not a grain bin standing. There’s not a window left in a single car and the garages are all lying flat."

—Mayor Fred Standa

The mayor of Mapleton, Iowa, said more than half of his city sustained some degree of damage after a tornado tore through the southwestern part of the small community Saturday evening.

On Sunday, the National Weather Service confirmed the damage was caused by an EF-3 tornado.

Mayor Fred Standa said he estimated 60 percent of the town sustained damage, and at least 20 percent of the community of 1,200 people was “completely flat.” More than 100 homes are reported to be seriously damaged.

Mapleton is near the Iowa – Nebraska state line, about 40 miles southeast of Sioux City.

Moana County Sheriff Jeff Pratt said 12 – 15 blocks of Mapleton were “completely destroyed,” and 500-600 residents were left homeless.

Despite the widespread damage, only a few minor injuries were reported, none of them life-threatening. The most serious injury reported was a broken leg. That person was taken to an area hospital for treatment.

A tornado warning was sounded about 10 minutes before the storm hit, giving residents the time needed to seek shelter.

The aftermath ranged from trees and power poles uprooted to complete devastation, with piles of debris marking where homes once stood.

“It’s not a pretty sight,” Standa said. “When you first get into town, there’s not a grain bin standing. There’s not a window left in a single car and the garages are all lying flat.”

The storm also damaged local utilities, including natural gas service. The smell of gas permeated much of the city immediately following the storm, prompting Standa and other local officials to call out the Iowa National Guard to block off most of the city. That blockade was lifted Sunday morning after the gas supply was shut off.

The American Red Cross mobilized immediately, establishing emergency shelters and feeding stations at the Mapleton Community Center, high school and middle school.

Tammie Pech with the Siouxland Chapter of the Red Cross said her organization was prepared for a large turnout of people seeking help.

“This morning we had fruit juice, fruit and rolls and things for the people that were in town,” Pech said. “We're expecting about 500 people for food today, so we are ready to go.”

The Salvation Army also mobilized a disaster response team to provide food and other essentials for those affected by the storm. That team was on scene early Sunday.

The tornado struck around 7:20 p.m. Mapleton resident Jeff Shupe said he saw the funnel approaching from behind a row of houses as he herded his family into a shelter. The family reached safety, but their house was virtually destroyed.

“It’s probably a complete loss. The walls are knocked out and the roof’s tore off,” Shupe said. “It’s pretty serious.”

Jamy Garden was one of those injured when the storm blew windows out of her house, showering her with glass. Bleeding and in complete darkness, Garden used the light from her cell phone for light to seek help.

On Sunday, she returned to find her house damaged, but still standing. Items inside were tossed around, and her back yard gazebo and shed were completely missing. A canoe picked up by the winds had landed in the yard.

“I don't know where our gazebo went,” she said. “And I don’t know where that canoe came from. It’s just a complete mess.”

Resident Tamara Adams said she closed the door on her storm shelter just as the tornado was tearing the roof off a neighboring home. She said she would never forget the sound the twister made as it tore through town.

“That sound; I’ll never get it out of my head,” Adams said. “It had a life. You could hear it breathing and growling.”

A group of storm chasers who had been attending a seminar in nearby Lincoln, Neb. followed storm system for about 90 minutes before it struck Mapleton. Lead chaser Shaun Gossman described the funnel that hit the community as “a giant wedge tornado.” As the chase team neared Mapleton, they began to see the damage.

“Once we started getting into Mapleton, you could really see the damage,” Gossman said. “(There were) power lines down, trees on cars, some houses completely leveled, trees down on the road blocking it.”

The Urban Search and Rescue Task Force from Sioux City worked throughout the night, searching for victims in the rubble. None were found, according to task force leader Joe Rodriguez.

Ironically, Mapleton is less than 30 miles from the Little Sioux Scout Ranch, where an EF-3 tornado killed four Boy Scouts and injured 48 others in June of 2008. Visiting Mapleton on Sunday to survey the damage, Congressman Steve King recalled the Little Sioux tragedy.

“When I hear a tornado touches down in Monona County, I think about the Boy Scouts and so I'm really happy to be here and we're all here to put this back together," King said.

The congressman also said he was unprepared for the amount of destruction in the small community.

“It’s just incredible to see this. We’re all so thankful nobody was seriously injured,” King said.

The tornado cut a path roughly three and a half miles long and three-quarters of a mile wide, according to the National Weather Service in Valley, Neb. The twister was measured to be on the lower end of an EF-3, which typically means wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad issued an emergency proclamation for Mapleton and Moana County, allowing the use of state funding and resources to help the community recover.

After hitting Mapleton, the storm system spawned another tornado in the tiny Sac County community of Early, population 600. The twister damaged several homes and businesses, hitting the downtown area hardest. Several homes were severely damaged, as well as a handful of local businesses.

Among the businesses hard hit were the Noll Trucking Company, Brinkman Repair Shop and the former Payless Cashways building.

After hitting Sac County, the tornado continued to the northeast, cutting through southeast Buena Vista County and then into Pocahontas County.

In the Pocahontas County, a tornado hit a farm in the community of Newell, damaging the house and destroying a garage, barn and several outbuildings.

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