Cleanup of tornado-swept Iowa town to take months

Published 8:18 pm Monday, April 11, 2011

Tom Sanford stepped carefully through his tornado ravaged home, his work shoes crunching on broken glass and wood splinters scattered across the floor. In the living room, next to his busted television, lay part of his neighbor’s chimney.

“Isn’t that something?” said Sanford, 92, who bought his house in 1946. “But we’re going to fix it. My house will be repaired.”

Sanford and his neighbors in Mapleton will spend the next several months rebuilding the western Iowa town of 1,200. Emergency responders have not yet calculated an exact dollar amount for the losses in Saturday evening’s storm that damaged or destroyed more than half the town but left no one dead. The Monona County sheriff said the recovery would likely cost millions of dollars, and Gov. Terry Branstad has promised state help.

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The huge, centuries-old trees the town was named for had been pulled out of the ground and wrapped around houses and tossed on top of cars. In one case, a huge motor home had been flipped on its side.

“It’s not a pretty sight,” Mayor Fred Standa said. “It’s something nobody has seen in this town.”

The tornado destroyed 12 to 15 blocks in the southwest corner of Mapleton when it struck about 7:20 p.m. Saturday, Sheriff Jeff Pratt said. The tornado destroyed about 100 homes and displaced an estimated 500 to 600 residents, he said.

The tornado was on the ground for 3  1/2 miles and measured three-quarters of a mile wide at one point, according to the National Weather Service office in Valley, Neb. The twister was measured to be on the lower end of an EF3, which carries wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph.

The tornado was one of several reported in Iowa on Saturday. In Mapleton, Pratt said two people were taken to hospitals with minor injuries. The weather service said it had received reports of 14 to 16 injuries, the most severe a broken leg.

More storms moved across the nation’s midsection on Sunday evening and early Monday morning, with several homes damaged in Wisconsin amid reports of possible tornadoes.

In Mapleton on Sunday, Tamara Adams, 37, piled branches on the curb, next to the 30-foot-tall tree that rested on top of her house. She said she closed her outside basement door just as the tornado tore the roof off a store that sits diagonal from her house.

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

Terry Siebersma, who runs a downtown liquor store with his wife, was manning his shop when he heard the tornado sirens and saw the sky turn green. In the distance, he saw the twister swirl into view.

“It was almost like the movies,” he said. “It was loud — really loud.”

Siebersma, 53, said he rushed to the basement. Upstairs, he heard bottles breaking. He emerged several minutes later. He said he walked to a back storage room and discovered the roof missing and one wall on the verge of collapse.

“We were very, very lucky,” he said. “I almost feel guilty.”

Monana County is in the same region of western Iowa where four Boy Scouts died in a tornado that struck a scouting ranch in June 2008. The National Weather Service said the tornado that hit the 1,800-acre Little Sioux Scout Ranch in the Loess Hills had an estimated wind speed of 145 mph.